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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.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

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