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US, Russia, China won't join global initiative to offer fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. Why not?
The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.
The board game "Pandemic" tasks players with stopping deadly diseases as they spread across the world. But what separates "Pandemic" from its winner-take-all peers is that it's a collaborative endeavor. Players either pull together to stamp out their microscopic foes, or they all lose.
Commentators have naturally drawn comparisons between the game and the COVID era it has become emblematic of, and those parallels have become more fitting lately. On September 21, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 156 countries had joined the COVAX Facility, a worldwide collaboration to develop a vaccine and distribute it strategically and equitably.
But as any "Pandemic" fan will tell you, there are always those players: the ones who cut ties with the others, who play to be the most powerful, who reinterpret the goal as domination in a zero-sum game of their own devising. Unfortunately for WHO and its allies, three big global players have refused to play cooperatively: China, Russia, and the United States.
All for one (vaccine)
Launched this April, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator brought together a panoply of governments, scientists, businesses, and global health organizations with the goal of accelerating the development, production, and distribution of an efficacious COVID-19 vaccine. The "vaccines pillar" of this initiative is the COVAX Facility.
COVAX is coordinated by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The program maintains a diverse portfolio of COVID-10 vaccines, monitoring each to identify promising candidates. It has also partnered with manufacturers to ease investment risks and serves as a purchasing pool for self-financing countries, while offering fundraising efforts to poorer ones.
"[G]overnments from every continent have chosen to work together, not only to secure vaccines for their own populations, but also to help ensure that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable everywhere," Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, said in a release. "With the commitments we're announcing today for the COVAX Facility, as well as the historic partnership we are forging with industry, we now stand a far better chance of ending the acute phase of this pandemic once safe, effective vaccines become available."
In an interview with Vox, Berkley noted that the ACT Accelerator is the largest global collaboration since the Paris Climate Agreement. He added, "This type of solidarity is critical because otherwise what you're going to end up with is just a constant reintroduction of infections and the inability to go back to normal."
As of Monday, 64 higher-income countries and 92 low- and middle-income countries—representing nearly two-thirds of the world's population—have signed commitments to COVAX. Thirty-eight more are expected to sign soon.
COVAX's goal is to have 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. Experts estimate this amount will cover high-risk and vulnerable people, as well as healthcare workers, worldwide. Participating nations must cover those populations before administering vaccines according to national priorities. As part of the agreement, countries agree to support equal access to the vaccine once it becomes available, a move aimed at preventing hoarding and price gouging.
Currently, CEPI is supporting nine candidate vaccines, of which eight are in clinical trials.
Why has the U.S. backed out?
The United States is gambling that its bilateral deals with various pharmaceutical companies will win the "vaccine race." This U.S.-only initiative, named (sigh) Operation Warp Speed, has already spent approximately $10 billion and is pushing to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. Many experts worry this speedy push through the regulatory path could result in premature and dangerous approvals.
China and Russia have likewise bet on their own high-priced ponies. Russia is touting an unvetted vaccine nicknamed (double sigh) "Sputnik V." This vaccine has only concluded phase 1 and 2 trials with a small number of participants, yet Russia claims to have already received international requests. Meanwhile, China has administered tens of thousands of doses of a vaccine before completing phase 3 clinical trials.
An additional barrier to the United States' participation: COVAX is a WHO-led initiative. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump admonished the WHO as a corrupt organization and claimed it assisted China in covering up the coronavirus outbreak and its severity. Though he presented no evidence for the accusation, Trump has used it as the basis for his threat to cut ties with, and funding for, the agency.
"The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China," said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said in a statement.
He added, "This president will spare no expense to ensure that any new vaccine maintains our own FDA's gold standard for safety and efficacy, is thoroughly tested, and saves lives."
By shirking COVAX, these countries hope to gain peerless access to a vaccine. Each could secure large numbers of doses for its citizens while also reaping the political boons to follow. In the United States, President Trump has pinned his re-election bid on a timely vaccine, while Chinese officials seem posed to use a vaccine to repair diplomatic ties.
But the loss of such rich economies will prove a blow to COVAX and the ACT Accelerator. Vaccines are notoriously expensive and risky to develop; the costs to manufacture doses at scale will be immense. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated the ACT Accelerator would cost roughly $30 billion, and the final bill for the tools to combat novel coronavirus would be at least $100 billion. But that's a pittance compared to the $10 trillion already spent on the pandemic so far.
"COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," Tedros said. "Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery. Working together through the COVAX Facility is not charity, it's in every country's own best interests to control the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery."
The winner won't necessarily take all
By COVAX's count, there are 170 COVID-19 vaccines in development. None have been approved, few have reached phase 3, and most will fail to exit clinical trials. While one or two may be ready by year's end, they probably won't be a corona-cure-all. They will likely be similar to flu vaccines, reducing the contraction risk and the severity of symptoms.
"We all recognize that flu vaccine, in a year when it's efficacious, you have what, 50% protection? And in a year when it's poor you have 30% or less than that—and still we use that," Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director-general of Health Systems and Innovation, told Stat.
That means any country to pass the approval finish line won't necessarily win it all. After approval, it will still take a global effort to manufacture and distribute doses. Without blanketed protection, even countries with a high inoculation rate will risk reintroduction of the virus from those still struggling to contain it.
As any player of "Pandemic" will tell you, when a player decides to go it alone, they don't just make the game more difficult. They diminish the trust and cooperation for many games to come.
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.