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The arms race

The arms race

We’re putting together a public campaign to vaccinate the world by the end of next year. How might it work? While it’s still early days, here’s our current thinking


Here are some of the things I’ve learned this week:

  • The third wave has begun – in Africa. Global Covid rates may be falling, but in Africa they’ve been rising week on week for the past five weeks. Infections and deaths are up nearly 40 per cent in the past 7 days. And things are likely to be much worse than we actually know: testing in the poorer countries of the world is 1/100th of what it is in the developed world.
  • Hesitancy has become a twofold problem. In the US, the vaccination rate is actually slowing. There are plenty of vaccines available, but people are fearful of having the jab. And it’s one of the main reasons why the Biden administration this week appeared to concede that it will miss its target of innoculating 70 per cent of people by Independence Day, 4 July. Meanwhile, across the developing world, there’s a growing problem of a different kind of vaccine hesitancy – product vaccine hesitancy. I.e. countries saying they don’t want the Astra Zeneca vaccine, they want Pfizer; but Pfizer is much more expensive, it needs cold storage and it’s just simply not being produced in nearly sufficient volumes. In Washington, there is growing alarm that the number of jabs going into arms around the world is not rising, it’s falling.
  • Then there are variants. Lambda is a variant of concern and it won’t be the last. By the way, if you’re a Greek speaker wondering what happened between Delta and Lambda, well, yes, it’s true the WHO has also identified variants of concern that are Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota and Kappa. But Lambda, well Lambda’s gained a certain level of interest because it was first identified in Peru in August, and now it accounts for more than 80 per cent of infections in that country, and the infection rate there, per capita, is higher than India’s. So the question asked by one health agency head that I spoke to is: what happens when we get a variant that combines transmissibility and lethality?
  • Here’s another thing I learned: there’s an urgent, rapidly rising shortfall in vaccines going to Covax, the coalition of health agencies trying to vaccinate the world. They’ve delivered just 90 million jabs so far; there were just 2 million this week. They were 150 doses million short of what they were promised for June and July. But then this week they released the latest numbers. It suggests they are now more than 200 million short of what they need; and some inside the organisation say: well actually by July it could be that they’re 290 million short. There were a billion vaccines donated – or at least pledged at the G7 summit, and these were, anyway, far too few to meet the world’s need, but they also come far, far too late: practically speaking, none of the G7 extra jabs will be in anyone’s arms in the next couple of months. And as a result, the global vaccination programme is falling behind its own targets: Covax’s aim to vaccinate 1.8 billion people – which was originally scheduled for the end of the year – has now slipped to the end of the first quarter of 2022.
  • And one final lesson I learned: leadership requires muscle. The explanation that I was given to the mystery of why the G7 didn’t agree the funding deal for Act-a, the global vaccines testing and treatment programme that’s been pushed by Angela Merkel, by Justin Trudeau, by Erna Solberg, or the financial package being championed by the IMF’s Kristalina Georgieva is, well it seems that the mystery is solved by the fact that the UK didn’t ask for it. I have to say it’s hard to believe, I can’t quite believe it’s true. But I hope I’ll find out more next week, and if I do I’ll tell you. In the meantime, what you learn is that people really need to push to get things done, as it was explained to me by someone who’d been at the G8 Summit in 2005, the one that took on the Make Poverty History agenda of aid and debt write-offs for the world’s poorest countries. Well Tony Blair pushed for what he wanted, quite literally, I quote “he had Gerhard Schroeder against the wall in the toilets at Gleneagles.” Global vaccinations needs a leader willing to push it through now. 

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I wanted to pick up from where I left off last week. The reason for giving that rat-a-tat-tat of detail and information around the global vaccine project is that, if you listened last week, you’ll know we’re thinking about how we might build a campaign, that tries to (or at least we might play a part in building a campaign) to vaccinate the world by the end of next year. 

And so here’s what we’ve got in mind. A public campaign called “the arms race”. The ambition is to vaccinate the world – to deliver ten billion jabs by the end of 2022. Why? Well for the  obvious reason, the one that people know now –  no one’s safe until we all are. (And I should say I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the business world this last week too – their response has been amazing: I guess they also recognise that no-one’s back in business until we’re all back in business.) The question, then though, is not just what the ambition is, but what are we actually trying to do? We – at Tortoise – can do some concerted journalism: Katie Gunning and I are going to report out what happened at the G7; my colleague Paul Caruana-Galizia is looking at how we might track vaccine donations and delivery; Matt d’Ancona and Lara Spirit are commissioning people to write and to speak out. But it’s about more than raising awareness. The idea that we’ve got in mind is a global public campaign that puts pressure on governments to accelerate the funding, production and delivery of Covid jabs. And the way we think we might be able to do that is by asking people – the public – to join the arms race. I.e. can we see if people around the world could pledge one billion doses, which, in turn, will  lean on the governments to make sure they fulfil a commitment to the remaining ten billion that are needed?

To get us there, what we’ve been trying to work on is an idea of creating a coalition of coalitions – i.e. a coalition of media, a coalition of business, one of technology, one of health agencies, one of faith, one of influencers, one of finance, one of politicians. And also giving ourselves a timeline. If we’re going to have a race, it needs a start and a finish. We wanted to get started soon. 4 July, as I mentioned, is the date that Joe Biden sets as America’s day of independence from Covid, i.e. the date he wants to see the vast proportion of Americans jabbed; well that’s also a moment to think about America’s responsibility to the world.  There’s the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Venice just later that week – this is the time to think about the funding of the global vaccine programme. 14 July in France: Liberte, Fraternite, Vaccine and all that. Well, there are obvious milestones: the UN General Assembly in September. There’s another at the G20 meeting in Rome in October. And each one a step along the way in a race that culminates in a great global moment on 10 April 2022. Yes, that’s right: 10.4.22 – when you’d like to have reached that moment when the public has pledged one billion doses and the rest of the world’s governments come on board to commit to the ten billion for ‘22 that’s needed to vaccinate the world.

Of course, you can’t enter a process like this without asking yourself some questions. 

First is this: Is it silly for a slow newsroom, and just a two year-old start-up, to try and weigh in on global vaccinations? The answer is: yes, a bit. You’d kind of like to be an organisation with more than just one coffee machine when you’re taking something like this on. But I suspect we wouldn’t have called ourselves Tortoise if we didn’t have a soft spot for the underdog. And the fact is we’ve got no ambitions and no delusions about doing this alone. We’ve always been a newsroom that’s about who we can bring together. And if not for this, then for what?

Some of the people in the health agencies I’ve spoken to have a different worry: it’s  a worry that the global vaccine campaign is just too simplistic. Tackling the pandemic requires testing and treatment too. And that must be right, of course. But to me it seems that the one doesn’t necessarily preclude the others. It’s hard to see how a campaign can get the public behind a global effort at test and trace. 

Another worry is that focusing on getting the world vaccinated by the end of next year, means that you’re putting on pressure, but for a delivery time that’s just too late. The need is now. And that is clearly true. But starting the arms race now, we hope, will put pressure on governments and agencies to do more, sooner. Our hope is that running the campaign means scrutiny of the G7 countries on their commitments; and that it will also focus attention on the likes of Pfizer, the Serum Institute, Astra Zeneca and the pharmaceutical industry on their deliveries – what they make and who they make it for. 

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given about campaigning was that when people start complaining, when they say that you’re getting boring, they say that you keep publishing the same story in different forms again and again and again – well, that’s the moment when you know you’ve only just got started. So I hope you’ll bear with us. This week, I’ve been bowled over by the people who have got in touch to introduce us to others who can help. Thank you for doing that, and please keep coming with suggestions, guidance and your searing common sense. 

It seems obvious that we are in a race. Vaccines vs variants. It’s a race we can and must win. And, I suppose at Tortoise, we should like the odds: we’re starting from well behind.