Pfizer breakthrough puts vaccine politics back in the spotlight

Art by Annie Gugliotta

US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced Monday that the coronavirus vaccine it is jointly developing with German company BioNTech is more than 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. The news that the end of the pandemic could be in sight drove global stock markets through the roof (except for Zoom!), and raised hopes around the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious disease expert, called the preliminary figure "extraordinary."

What does this mean not only for the pandemic, but for the politics around it?


First, Pfizer's claim is based on an interim analysis of Phase III clinical trials on only 44,000 people. We still don't know if the vaccine will work when tested on a bigger sample size, or if the initial results will hold later on. Second, even if they do, the drug will still have to go through a process of national-level approvals.

Third, it will then have to be made accessible to the global population (at the moment, 11 other vaccines are in Phase III trials; Russia and China have already started administering their own drugs). And fourth, governments will have to convince their citizens to take the vaccine, which only 58 percent of Americans are willing to do right now amid growing skepticism worldwide.

In the meantime, get ready for some potentially messy vaccine politics in the US and around the world.

As the US reported over 100,000 new coronavirus cases for the third day in a row, US President Donald Trump tweeted out the good news, although it's unclear how he will proceed on approving a drug. After all, he can't benefit politically from it after being defeated by Joe Biden in the recent election. Pfizer has avoided the scrum of US presidential politics by not signing up to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's plan to fast-track development, production, and distribution of a vaccine.

President-elect Biden, on the other hand, was cautiously optimistic about the vaccine, setting realistic expectations on when all Americans will be vaccinated. In any case, who would get those doses first — or at all — is a major issue. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla raised some eyebrows when he said it would be available to all US citizens, potentially leaving out tens of millions of people who live and work in America on visas or green cards.

Globally, this is a broader consideration. More than 170 countries have joined the COVAX global initiative to ensure equitable distribution, but rich countries have been allowed to stockpile hundreds of millions of doses for their own people. Indeed, the European Union, Japan, the US, and the UK reserved a combined 450 million doses months ago of the Pfizer vaccine — which is not (yet) part of COVAX — months ago.

An immediate future in which developed nations get inoculated first while the developing world waits in line would not only prolong the public health and economic challenges of the coronavirus — it would exacerbate global inequality by slowing the speed at which poorer countries can bounce back.

The bottom line: Promising results for a COVID-19 vaccine are definitely a rare piece of good news in 2020. But the political and logistical challenges of approval and distribution are only just beginning, in the US and around the world.

Emily Ademola lives in an area of Nigeria that has been attacked by Boko Haram militants in the past. Looking for water was very risky, and without access to water, the community – especially children – were at risk of waterborne diseases. Eni, in partnership with FAO, built a water well in Emily's community in 2019.

Watch Emily's first-hand account about how access to water "close to our doorsteps" has improved the quality of life for her community and her family.

There's never a great time to impose higher taxes on funeral services — but doing it in the middle of a raging pandemic is an especially bad move. Yet that was one of a number of measures that the Colombian government proposed last week in a controversial new tax bill that has provoked the country's largest and most violent protests in decades.

In the days since, the finance minister has resigned, the tax reform has been pulled, and President Iván Duque has called for fresh dialogue with activists, union leaders, and opposition politicians.

But demonstrations, vandalism, and deadly clashes with police have only intensified. Two dozen people are dead, 40 are missing, and the UN has criticized Colombian police for their heavy-handed response.

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While residents of wealthy countries are getting ready for hot vaxxed summer — COVID is still ravaging many low- and middle-income countries. The horrifying scenes coming out of India in recent weeks have gripped the world, causing governments and civil society to quickly mobilize and pledge support.

But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is also being pummeled by the pandemic — and has been for a year now. Yet thus far, the outpouring of aid and (solidarity) hasn't been as large.

What explains the global alarm at India's situation, and seeming passivity towards Brazil's plight? What are the politics of compassion?

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Paris-London face-off at sea: France and the UK are at loggerheads in the high seas this week over post-Brexit fishing access in Jersey, an island off the English Channel. Furious at regulations that they say makes it harder to fish in these lucrative waters, dozens of French fishing boats amassed near the Channel Island, threatening to block access to the port. In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two naval vessels — a move critics say was an unnecessary escalation, and an attempt by the PM to flex his muscles and bolster the Tory vote ahead of Thursday's regional election. France, for its part, sent its own naval ship and threatened to cut off Jersey's electricity supply, 90 percent of which comes from French underwater cables. Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Though an UK-EU Brexit agreement was finally reached in December 2020, it's clear that there are still thorny issues that need to be resolved.

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10: Joshua Wong was sentenced along with other Hong Kong democracy activists to 10 months in prison for participating in a vigil last year marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Wong is currently behind bars for participating in separate pro-democracy protests, and will only start this new sentence after that term concludes in November.

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What's the biggest foreign policy misconception that Americans have about the US's role in the world? According to international relations expert Tom Nichols, too few Americans believe that the US, in fact, has a critical role in the world, and that the things Americans enjoy, from cheap goods to safe streets, are made possible because of American global leadership. "Americans have become so spoiled and inured to the idea that the world is a dangerous place that they don't understand that the seas are navigable because someone makes them that way. They don't understand that peace between the great powers is not simply like the weather, that just happens," Nichols tells Ian Bremmer. Their conversation is featured on an episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television – check local listings.

Watch the episode: Make politics "boring" again: Joe Biden's first 100 Days

The cover story of The Economist declares that Taiwan is "The most dangerous place on Earth," because China might finally be ready to plan an invasion of the island. But are the consequences of such a move worth the many risks to China and its President Xi Jinping? Ian Bremmer breaks out the Red Pen to to explain why a US-China war over Taiwan is unlikely.

We are taking our red pen to a recent article from The Economist. The Economist, you ask, how could I? I love The Economist, I know, I know. But you'd lose respect if I give this piece a pass. In fact, it was the magazine's cover story this week, so I had no choice. The image and headline say it all. Here it is, Taiwan is now "the most dangerous place on earth" as US/China relations continue to sour in the opening months of President Biden's administration.

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Delhi-based reporter Barkha Dutt's decades of journalism couldn't prepare her for the horrific experience of covering the death of one specific COVID-19 victim: her own father. In a conversation with Ian Bremmer, Dutt recounts her desperate struggle to find an ambulance to take her father through Delhi traffic to reach the hospital, only for him to die in the ICU. Their in-depth discussion looks at India's struggle with the world's worst COVID crisis in the upcoming episode of GZERO World begins airing on US public television Friday, May 7. Check local listings.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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Would China really invade Taiwan?

The Red Pen

India’s COVID crisis hits home

GZERO World Clips
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal