Listen: The pandemic's US death toll shows no signs of abating and the holiday season's spike will likely dwarf any surge that came before it. But in the midst of this dark winter there are glimmers of hope, as the first of the COVID-19 vaccines have nearly arrived (or, depending on when you read this, already have). On the GZERO World podcast, Ian Bremmer interviews Noubar Afeyan, the co-founder of a leading vaccine developer Moderna. They'll discuss distribution plans, the revolutionary science behind Moderna's vaccine, and how a company younger than Twitter became a frontrunner in the race to end the pandemic.
"What we're trying to do is to educate the immune system to see the protein before it's seen the virus." In a race for a COVID vaccine, Moderna, a 10-year old company with no products previously on the market, developed a vaccine in 10-months, by using revolutionary new mRNA technology. Now the focus shifts to how to distribute and safely administer this vaccine. Moderna co-founder and chairman Noubar Afeyan explains.
His conversation with Ian Bremmer was part of the latest episode of GZERO World, which began airing nationally in the US on public television Friday, December 11th. Check local listings.
Watch the GZERO World episode: A Shot in the Arm: Moderna's Co-Founder on the COVID-19 Vaccine
Almost one year since the coronavirus upended the world, what's the current state of play on ending the pandemic, and what challenges we face towards vaccinating everyone in 2021.
Fortunately, as the virus has grown exponentially, so has science, Dr. Larry Brilliant, CEO of Pandefense and one of the world's most highly regarded epidemiologists, said during the panel discussion on fighting COVID-19 at the 2020 GZERO Summit in Japan.
Science, he explained, has accomplished the audacity of developing successful vaccines in record time. That's why he's optimistic about ending the pandemic next year in many parts of the world, even if the next 2-3 months will be very bad mainly in Western countries.
Part of the reason for his optimism is the great news about the efficacy of vaccines like the one developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech, which the UK started administering to its citizens on Tuesday.
For Angela Hwang, president of Pfizer's biopharmaceuticals group, developing the vaccine is just the start. Now enough people need to get vaccinated to achieve the herd immunity necessary to stop the virus in its tracks.
To build sufficient trust in the drug to achieve that goal, she said, everyone needs to be on board. It'll take not only the private and public sectors working together but all of society committed to making everyone understand that vaccines work, and that you must get inoculated at a moment of extreme resistance in some countries.
Also, mass vaccination means it must happen across the developing world at the same level as in developing countries. The world is just too interconnected to leave anyone behind, noted Gargee Ghosh, president for global advocacy and programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Even where many people are suspicious of vaccines, she added, ultimately the clear benefits of restarting economies will hopefully convince those who fear rolling up their arms.
Vaccinations likely won't be a problem in Japan, where Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister, in charge of economic revitalization, underscored how the majority of the population has heeded their advice to practice social distance, wear masks, stay at home and shut down businesses despite no mandatory orders to do so.
Watch the above video to learn more insights from our panelists.
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:
Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, back in the office in New York City. And I've got my Christmas scarf going, it feels... It's the time of the holidays, get your trees, decorate, right? I usually have a little tree trimming party, which means everybody else comes and trims the tree with me. Not this year, but nonetheless, soon to be, Merry Christmas to everybody and lots to talk about.
I guess, biggest thing on my mind right now is the rollout of these vaccines. I mean, on the one hand it's I know it's challenging the push and pull of the United States right now being in the teeth of the worst of the pandemic in terms of cases, in terms of hospitalizations, and even now in terms of deaths. And that's with mortality rates significantly lower than they were six months ago, but the case level has been so explosive that the death rates are still higher than they were at the earlier peak back in the spring. And given where hospitalizations now are and given where cases are certainly going to be, those numbers are going to keep going up. So, on the one hand we're looking at maybe half a million total dead by the time we get to end of January, February, and the next couple of months are going to be really, really hard.
On the other hand, we are now also looking at people getting vaccinated, we're looking at real solutions. And those solutions come first and foremost to the people that are by far the most vulnerable. Now, usually you would be focused on how quickly can everybody get this vaccine, but I do think it's important because this disease hits so much worse a relatively small piece of the population, the very old and those with serious pre-existing conditions, and particularly when those two groups collide. And those are precisely the people along with first responders and hospitals that are going to be getting the vaccines first.
So, I mean, irrespective of difficulties in rollout, irrespective in fake news around anti-vaxxer sentiment, we're going to see within two months a very, very significant reduction in the mortality rate of this disease, because the people that are most vulnerable are suddenly going to be vaccinated. And they'll only get some immunity immediately, they'll need to get that second course, the booster shot, which gets them up to 95% and that takes a few weeks after the first shot, but still, that's a very positive outcome.
Having said that, in terms of getting the country and getting the world back up and running there is an enormous degree of uncertainty around what happens next year on how quickly we're going to be able to roll out the vaccine. I just saw from Secretary of Health and Human Services, Azar, an expectation that most people in the US are going to be able to be vaccinated by second quarter. I agree that that is possible, it is the best-case scenario, it is absolutely not something you want to do bet on right now, and there are a few reasons for it.
The first is that we have no idea how difficult it is going to be to produce and roll out this vaccine, these vaccines that we're using Pfizer and Moderna. These are the two that everyone in the US will want to take, they're the two that have the highest degree of efficiency. But they're also the two with the very difficult infrastructure requirements, the serious cold chain requirements, in the case of Pfizer, also a need to dilute the vaccine on site before it's given to patients and that requires specialized labor which is already stretched.
So you've got significant infrastructure needs. You're also talking about producing at massive scale vaccines using technologies that have never been produced before. I mean, Pfizer's produced a lot of vaccines, they've been around for a long, long time, they're a big, big pharmaceutical company, global pharmaceutical company, but no one's ever produced an mRNA vaccine before. Moderna has never produced anything before, they've been around for 10 years, this is their first commercial product. So I mean, everything has to go right to get it out there by April.
And when you hear people talking about side effects, some of those are I'm sure going to be exaggerated, some of those side effects we don't necessarily know at scale yet. I spoke with a friend of mine who's on the Coronavirus Task Force for Biden, he took both courses of the Moderna vaccine and after the booster shot, he was out for three days with a heavy fever and wasn't able to go to work. And I can imagine a lot of people thinking they take the first shot, and they say, "Ah, I didn't feel great after that first shot, I don't really need to take the second shot, nevermind." And then suddenly you don't have 95% effective effectiveness, you have 50 or 60% effectiveness and it's a radically different story in terms of getting the vaccines out there. Then there's also huge difference between if 80% of the people say they'll take it, and if only 60% do. And anti-vax sentiment in the United States is reasonably high and there's going to be massive disinformation that's going to be put out in an unprecedented polarization of social media in the United States right now.
I mean, when a majority of Republicans think the election was stolen, how many people are going to think that this vaccine is unsafe or that one of the vaccines is unsafe and then decide they want to take the other one, but it's not available for everybody. I mean, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, can go wrong around information, can go wrong around manufacturing, can go wrong around distribution.
And then you've got the global side of this, which is also really interesting. One of the things we don't know is how long your immunity lasts once you've taken both courses of these vaccines, is it six months to 12 months? Is it 18 months? We have no idea. The United States has ordered an enormous amount of these vaccines, and if we knew that the vaccines were going to last for a year or two years, there would be a significant willingness after the US produces to start exporting a lot of that vaccine to other countries. On the other hand, if you've got problems in your manufacturing, in your distribution and/or if there's real uncertainty around how long your immunity lasts, the United States and other countries are going to want to stockpile a lot more of the vaccine than they otherwise would, which means they're not going to be exporting it to other countries.
You know who will be exporting it to other countries? China. They're doing a lot of producing, their vaccine isn't as good, but it doesn't require the cold chain, just basic refrigeration. And also, they don't need a lot of vaccines for China itself, at least not near term, because they've got massive surveillance capabilities and quarantine capabilities, they can demand that of their population. They'll give it to the frontline workers, but most Chinese people don't necessarily need the vaccine if you've already hammered down the virus, right? I mean, it's like New Zealand, for example. It's like Australia today, for example. Which means China's going to be engaging and exporting all of these vaccines internationally, whether the US can or will is an uncertainty right now, that's a massive difference between those two countries and potentially leads to big, big conflict between the United States and China and the issue that is the most important next year, which is how are we doing on vaccines? It matters to getting our economies restarted, it matters to unemployment, it matters to growth, and it matters to geopolitics.
A lot of uncertainty here, we hope for the best-case scenario, it is a real scenario, it is plausible. I mean, the United States did a good job on the economics in 2020 until very recently, did a lousy job on the healthcare response to coronavirus in terms of masking and PPE and all of the rest. But so far has done a very good job, some of the world's best in terms of vaccine development. Now we have to see for 2021, how the United States is going to do on vaccine production and distribution, and as of right now, we don't know. That level of uncertainty is probably greater than any near-term issue I can imagine that we knew about it, but we just didn't know how well it was going to work, the impact that's going to have on so many factors in the US and globally is just massive, something we'll be paying an enormous attention to and rooting for quite a bit over the coming months.
So that's enough for me for now, hope you guys are well, stay safe and avoid people.
Watch the recording of GZERO Media virtual Town Hall, "Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year," presented in partnership with Eurasia Group and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Our panel discussed the road ahead in the global response to the COVID crisis. Will there be more multilateral cooperation on issues like gender equality moving forward from the pandemic?
Watch the event recording here: https://www.gzeromedia.com/townhall
Our moderator, CNBC health care correspondent Bertha Coombs, along with Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, spoke with distinguished experts on three key issues:
Heidi Larson, Director, The Vaccine Confidence Project
- How will COVID vaccines be distributed safely?
Minouche Shafik, Director of London School of Economics & Political Science
- How has the pandemic disproportionately impacted women?
Madeleine Albright, Chair, Albright Stonebridge Group and Albright Capital Management; former US Secretary of State
- What is the opportunity for global cooperation emerging from this crisis, and what are the greatest political risks?
Friday, December 4, 2020
12 noon EST/9 am PST/5 pm (17:00) GMT
Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:
With COVID vaccine near, what will the distribution look like across the world?
Well, yeah, it is quite near. I mean, we're talking about approvals coming just in the next few days for the first in the United States and indeed in other countries around the world. That means that within weeks, you're going to know people that have actually gotten vaccines, and that's pretty exciting, especially with Moderna and Pfizer showing 95% effectiveness. I guess there are a few things that I would say. The first, hearing from the coronavirus task force that everyone in the United States gets the vaccine that wants to take it by June. I think that's right. I mean, there could be infrastructure and delivery hiccups. I hope there won't be. Everyone is going to be rowing in more or less the same direction on this because everyone understands how important it is to get it done.
I'm going to say it again. I don't think you're going to see a lot of people playing politics around taking the vaccine. There are anti-vaxers out there. I've already heard from a bunch of them, but you're not seeing that from Trump or his top advisors. You're not seeing that from Biden and from his incoming coronavirus task force. In the United States where everything gets politicized, a lot of people are going to be taking this coronavirus vaccine. And indeed, you already see numbers of people and their skepticism has been reduced significantly just in the last couple of weeks as we're learning more about it. I certainly feel much more comfortable that I will take these vaccines as soon as they are properly available to me. I'm not sure I would've said that three months ago, given where we were at that point. I feel very comfortable with that now. So that's number one.
Number two, the United States has bought as much as possible of not only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but other vaccines too. And the reason they do that is because when you see start making those orders, you don't know which vaccines are going to work. Because the Europeans have bet more strongly on AstraZeneca, which is a vaccine that has had problems in testing and doesn't do as well, that implies to me that the Americans are going to be getting this rollout before the Europeans do. And that will have economic implications for getting economies back up and rolling early next year. So the US does have a structural advantage here.
Also, final point. Let's keep this in mind. Those two vaccines in the United States are really vaccines that are most useful for advanced industrial economies, because they require much stronger infrastructure. You've got booster shots you need to deliver and you also have to have not just regular refrigeration, but more advanced cold chain technology. You're not using that in most of the developing world. The Chinese are going to be doing most of the early-stage export of their less effective, but still effective, vaccine to the developing world. Just needs regular refrigeration. And that's a lot of influence. I think you're going to see an enormous amount of politics play out as we see Chinese export to the developing world. And if you think that people are concerned about Belt and Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, you've seen nothing before the kind of leverage the Chinese influence over their best friends who get their vaccines earlier than other countries do and what they want in return.
This is also going to be one of the biggest challenges for the United States and China in terms of navigating the relationship. I mean, a lot of people think that the US-China relationship is going to be at least more normalized, maybe a little bit better, maybe more promising under Biden. I'm not sure. I see the outbreak of serious trade confrontation and diplomatic confrontation with Australia right now. I see it with Canada right now. I see so many countries that are really antagonized by the Chinese government. And I see these issues getting worse. So even with a group that's rowing in the same direction as the Biden administration will, and with tweets not driving people crazy, I suspect this relationship is going to be very challenging. And I think vaccine rollout is going to be a big problem. So that was a lot of time on your question, but it's a really important question.
Why is everyone on Twitter talking about monoliths?
I have no idea. Some artists installed some metallic thing in the middle of Utah that nobody saw for awhile, despite satellite technology. Why not? Why did no one notice? Aren't there people that spend all their time just looking at the land and seeing what's new? You'd think that AI would have figured that out, but no. No, apparently nobody noticed it, and then suddenly in person they did, and then the obelisk is gone. And I honestly don't care. And we're going to find out that it's... Remember the guy that took the banana and nailed the banana to the side of a wall and said it was an art installation and was charging $80,000? And some other crisis actor came and took down the banana and ate it. And the whole thing was a set up?
It is kind of is annoying. I mean, at least Banksy does it with real talent. The banana guy just did it with a stupid banana. Right? I mean, I don't consider that art and this obelisk is kind of a stupid obelisk, and I don't consider that art either. This is probably the most controversial thing I'm going to say all day. So come at me haters. I don't care. I'm just not interested in a stupid obelisk. The only thing would make me less interested in it is if you put it in Rhode Island. How's that? And drew cats on it. That would really annoy me. But they haven't done that. It's just a stupid obelisk, but it's on my list of things that I find annoying. So there you go.
GZERO Media, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Eurasia Group, today hosted its second virtual town hall on the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine and the challenges of its distribution.
The panel was moderated by New York Times science and health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli and featured Gates Foundation's Deputy Director of Vaccines & Human Immunobiology, Lynda Stuart; Eurasia Group's Rohitesh Dhawan, Managing Director of Energy, Climate & Resources; Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman; and Gayle E. Smith, the president & CEO of ONE Campaign and former Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Watch the full video above.
Lynda Stuart on the politicization of the vaccine race
It's an absolute tragedy. Vaccine hesitancy at the best of times is a growing issue in the US and around the world, and politicizing it just makes it worse. It's remarkable... to see this happen at such a critical moment in history. That is the last thing that we need. The politicians should probably step out of the way and let the scientists and the public health physicians do the work, and the politicians should be taking a back seat and empowering those who are more technical and who do this for a living to really drive this. It's really a great shame.
Rohitesh Dhawan on what happens if China pioneers an effective vaccine, and gives it first to nations already testing it
Producing and getting the vaccines out is a mammoth task. And even though China is a manufacturing superpower, it has had to go out and seek external partners with which to both test and manufacture the vaccine... And the agreements are, of course, to give those countries some portion of the vaccines that are thus developed, but also for China to have access to the spoils of the work... This is a way for countries to exert soft power, and in a GZERO world where the US and China are essentially fighting for privacy geopolitically, this will be a dynamic that we have to live with. [And] types of vaccines which are simple as a handle will naturally be more attractive to countries that have less well-developed healthcare infrastructures [so] we will see natural geopolitical alliances that in some cases reinforce existing alliances, and other cases will create new ones.
Mark Suzman on equitable and speedy vaccine distribution
We've got to realize that this is an unprecedented challenge globally. We've never actually tried to vaccinate most of the entire planet... So it's an unprecedented challenge in terms of manufacturing and distribution. But what we also need is to make sure it's affordable and equitably distributed. That means not just in rich countries alone, where there's the challenge that many rich countries would be buying up vaccine supply. And that's why we and others have been trying to participate in broader efforts to both have a prioritization of who gets the vaccines first — including high risk groups and healthcare workers — and to put a premium on affordability. We need to be manufacturing now multiple vaccine candidates at the same time, so they're ready to distribute as and when we get regulatory approval.
Gayle E. Smith on what the world will look like if we don't get a vaccine soon
There is a real danger that there will be a set of countries that are in a state of, quite frankly, perpetual crisis. [Without] travel corridors, there are countries whose economies will collapse. There is a real, real danger of that kind of crisis and the instability that comes with it. [But] one of the things I think is very positive is that despite all the politics, the geopolitical intrigue, the fight against facts that we have seen tragically as part of this pandemic, we've seen really consistent, robust cooperation among scientists, across borders, across communities. Regardless of what happens, we will see an escalation and deepening of that. And if we don't have a vaccine, it will grow further.