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Sensemaker Special: Boosters vs vaccinating the world

Sensemaker Special: Boosters vs vaccinating the world

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Duchess of Sussex, better known as Meghan, won a ruling from the UK Court of Appeal denying the Mail on Sunday a trial in her civil action against the paper for publishing a letter she wrote to her father soon after her wedding.
  • Unite, the British trade union, said it would divert discretionary funding that used to go to the Labour party to other causes. 
  • As the soundtrack to her ceremonial farewell after 16 years in office, Chancellor Angela Merkel chose Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen (You forgot the colour film), a pop song by the east German singer Nina Hagen.

Boosters vs vaccinating the world

It’s been a week since the emergence of the Omicron variant prompted swift new travel bans and restrictions in much of the developed world.

It remains unclear how transmissible and severe Omicron is and how vaccine-evasive it might be. As the UK government waits for answers its primary defence is an accelerated booster campaign: 114 million more doses have been ordered to ensure all over-18s can be offered a third dose in the next eight weeks. The total supply is now enough to vaccinate everyone in the country six times over. 

Nor are third shots likely to be the last. Albert Bourla, the Pfizer CEO now on every world leader’s speed dial, says it’s “likely” that annual revaccinations will be needed to maintain very robust protection, while Moderna’s CEO says a double booster dose may be needed to protect against Omicron.

But the rich north’s double-down on boosters means fewer vaccines for low-income countries, where just 6 per cent have had a single dose: 

  • The world is set to have produced 12 billion doses by the end of 2021. This would have been enough to vaccinate over 70 per cent of the world against Covid – the UN-backed target for mid-2022 – were vaccines distributed equitably. 
  • The UK was set to have more than 40 million spare doses this month, according to the data company Airfinity in October. It will probably now have less. These vaccines would have either expired or been redistributed to developing countries. Redistribution was considered unlikely, given the UK has delivered only 11 per cent of the 100 million it pledged back in June. Global supply could surge again next year but the accelerated booster drive almost certainly means fewer doses for redistribution in the next few months. 
  • There are six times more boosters administered every day than first doses in low-income countries, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Only 7 per cent of people in Africa are currently vaccinated. All African countries except Morocco and Tunisia are set to miss the UN’s modest target of 40 per cent coverage by the end of 2021. 

Boris Johnson’s booster strategy might be understandable if combined with a decision to hermetically seal the UK’s borders. But if they are to remain open a variant anywhere will in time become a variant everywhere. And far from everywhere is protected. 

The WHO has long pleaded with wealthy nations to withhold boosters until sufficient vaccination levels are reached elsewhere, likening booster campaigns to “giving one lifejacket to the people who have none before you give another lifejacket to those who have two”. 

But experts may be changing their minds in favour of boosters in light of Omicron. In the US, Dr Celine Gounder – previously against a boosters-for-everyone approach – is among an increasing number newly arguing that a variant more resistant to antibodies should warrant a third jab for all. 

Why it matters. Accelerated booster programmes could swallow the remainder of this year’s supply. It’s been suggested domestic production in developing countries could plug the gap, but the few initiatives that exist – Moderna’s promised vaccine factory in Africa being one example – are unlikely to significantly expand capacity before the end of 2022. 

Pfizer is unlikely to step in. It will generate $35 billion in sales this year, but Bourla has defended the high price of his jab as “the cost of a takeaway meal” and given no indication his company – with an 80 per cent market share in the EU and 74 per cent in the US, according to the FT – will be expanding access to its vaccine for countries in need. 

As long as wealthy nations are fearful, the chances they will voluntarily surrender booster shots to faraway nations are slim. And as long as vaccine coverage is patchy and the virus has free reign to circulate in hotspots, the likelihood of more dangerous new variants remains high. 

The UN has called for a ‘pandemic treaty’ to think collectively about vaccinations. Today, in a letter from the Pandemic Action Network, 25 organisations argue for a global strategy to reach the target of 70 per cent in each country vaccinated by mid-2022. For now that figure is well beyond reach.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Old Bexley and Sidcup
Does sleaze still count in British politics? Do voters care? They do if you’re a Labourite this morning. They don’t – much – if you’re a Tory. A by-election to replace the late James Brokenshire produced a 14,500-vote swing to Labour, which increased its vote share by 7 per cent while the Conservatives’ shrank by 13 per cent. So dodgy second jobs for MPs and dodgy PPE contracts for MPs’ chums clearly have some cut-though. But turnout was low and the Tory candidate, Louie French, still won handily. Tom Harris noted in the Telegraph that Old Bexley and Sidcup has been rock solid Tory territory since roughly the Norman Conquest, and of course by-elections this far from general ones have minimal national significance. Still, it’s noteworthy that Reform UK, the new home for Brexit ultras, secured its deposit while the Lib Dems and Greens lost theirs. 

New things technology, science, engineering

As our Sweet Bobby podcast shows, catfishing can become a dangerous tool for coercive control. At the other end of the spectrum – what happens when scammers get scammed? The LA Times reports on a deluge of catfishers pretending to be Instagram psychics, tarot readers, astrologers and other metaphysical practitioners to swindle people out of hundreds of dollars for readings and guidance. Sanyu Nagenda, a soothsayer who calls herself a “word witch”, tells the paper one of her clients sent $500 for a reading to a fake account and ended up with a 15 minute long video of a candle burning. Nagenda was “particularly offended” because as a soothsayer, she says, “my business is the truth”. Part of the issue, the practitioners say, is that Instagram often refuses to verify the practitioners’ profiles. Usually we would side with the catfished. But can you really verify a witch? 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

German vaccinations 
Soon-to-be German chancellor Olaf Scholz has a tough winter ahead, but he is already making clear he’s firmly in favour of Covid restrictions. Yesterday the SPD leader, along with the outgoing Angela Merkel, announced there would be a vote in the Bundestag to make vaccines mandatory from February. The 31.4 per cent of the population who still aren’t vaccinated can expect fines and legal action if they don’t get jabbed, unless exempt. The Merkel/Scholz duo also announced more immediate restrictions on the unvaccinated, who are now barred from bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and Christmas markets. Similar vaccine laws are expected in Austria, and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called this week for a “common approach” across the bloc on mandatory jabs. An aside – a backlash against vaccine mandates is inevitable but, after an ECHR case in April found that legally requiring jabs for children doesn’t violate the European convention on human rights, challenges will struggle if they take that route.  

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Shell withdrawal
The end of North Sea oil inched closer with Shell’s withdrawal from a plan to develop the Cambo field 75 miles west of Shetland. Shell said the economic case for going ahead wasn’t strong enough, and also cited the risk of delays. It didn’t acknowledge a PR cost to new drilling in a relatively closely-watched place so soon after Cop26, but there clearly is one. It hasn’t helped the oil majors that the International Energy Agency, which used to advocate on their behalf, has called for an end to all new oil and gas exploration; nor that the cost of capital for exploration is rising as markets factor in the risk of reserves becoming stranded by the rising price of carbon credits – ie of pollution. The Cambo project could still go ahead with other investors, and there are plenty who insist oil and gas will play a big role in the energy transition until 2060 or beyond. These are often the same people who underestimated the growth of wind, solar and EVs.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Villa Ludovisi
One of Rome’s grandest homes is likely to be auctioned off for at least €353 million to resolve an inheritance dispute between three adult children from the first marriage of Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi and his widow – his second wife, the Texan-born Princess Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi. The Villa Ludovisi has three garages, two roof terraces, gardens described by Stendhal as the most splendid in the world and accommodation on six levels, but the main reason for its outsize valuation (€471 million) is the world’s only known Caravaggio ceiling mural. Princess Rita says she’ll treasure her every last moment in the property but that its next owner will have to be a billionaire rather than a millionaire to care for it appropriately. The auction is scheduled for next month.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Lara Spirit

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Shutterstock