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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.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele is an unusual politician. The 39-year old political outsider boasts of his political triumphs on TikTok, dons a suave casual uniform (backwards-facing cap; leather jacket; tieless ), and refuses to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

Bukele also enjoys one of the world's highest approval ratings, and that's what helped his New Ideas party clinch a decisive victory in legislative elections on February 28, securing a close to two-third's supermajority (75 percent of the vote had been counted at the time of this writing).

His triumph will resonate far beyond the borders of El Salvador, Central America's smallest country, home to 6.5 million people. Now that Bukele has consolidated power in a big way, here are a few key developments to keep an eye on.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I thought I would talk today, I haven't spoken much about former President Trump since he's no longer president and I intend to continue that practice. But given this weekend and the big speech at CPAC and the fact that in the straw poll, Trump won and won by a long margin. I mean, DeSantis came in number two, but he's the Governor of Florida, CPAC was in Orlando, so that's a home court bias. In reality, it's Trump's party. And I think given all of that, it's worth spending a little bit of time reflecting on what that means, how I think about these things.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

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Iran rules out nuclear talks… for now: Iran has reportedly rejected an offer to join direct talks with the US and EU over its nuclear program, saying it won't start the conversation until sanctions on Iran's economy are eased. To be clear, this does NOT mean that prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal are dead. Europeans and the Biden administration want a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and Iran certainly needs the economic boost that would come from a removal of sanctions. But Tehran is going to try to maximize its leverage before any talks begin, especially since this is a sensitive election year in in the country. Iran's leaders are going to play hard to get for a while longer before edging their way back to the bargaining table. Still, it's high stakes diplomacy here between parties that have almost no mutual trust — and one misstep could throw things off track quickly.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


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