What We're Watching: Status of COVID in the US, China wants a reset, Indian vax-makers under pressure

Lila Blanks holds the casket of her husband, Gregory Blanks, 50, who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), ahead of his funeral in San Felipe, Texas, U.S., January 26, 2021.

Making sense of 500,000 COVID deaths in America: The US was on track to pass another grim milestone Monday, as it nears half a million deaths from COVID-19, the highest total death toll in the world. (To put that in bleak perspective: carrying 500,000 people would require a caravan of buses that would stretch 94.7 miles, the Washington Post finds.) Still, while the grief is being felt across the entire country (President Biden and VP Harris planned a moment of silence to mark the milestone), there's also some good news on the horizon: cases across the US are at their lowest level since the fall, while hospitalization rates are also plummeting (there's been a 50 percent decline in just over a month). The US vaccine rollout has also picked up steam, though recent volatile weather disrupted the rollout in many parts of the country. While some analysts say that the worst of the pandemic has now passed in the US — with some even suggesting herd immunity could come by April — others urge caution, saying that complacency could usher in a dreaded fourth wave.


China wants a fresh start with the US: Beijing's top diplomat says it's time for a reset of US-China relations after four years of rapidly deteriorating ties between the world's two largest economies. Foreign minister Wang Yi on Monday called on the US to lift the sweeping sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Chinese goods, and to ease up on Chinese tech companies that Washington has targeted over national security fears. How will the Biden administration respond to this olive branch? By now it's largely the consensus in Washington, for better or worse, that China should be treated as a rival. That means Biden can't afford to look weak, particularly with Trump and the GOP ready to pounce on anything that looks like a sop to Beijing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biden has kept in place most of the Trump-era pressure on China for now. But at the same time, he wants to distinguish his approach by working more effectively with US allies to pressure China over commercial, strategic, technological, and human rights issues. What's more, big picture global challenges like post-pandemic economic recovery and, above all, climate change will require significant cooperation with Beijing in order to succeed. Biden's in a tough spot on a big issue that could define his foreign policy — can he craft a coherent strategy?

Indian vaccine maker in a tight spot: The Serum Institute of India is set to produce hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines for COVAX, the global initiative that aims to make the shots available to more than 90 low and middle income countries. But in a cryptic weekend tweet, Serum's CEO said his company had been "directed to prioritise the huge needs of India." He didn't name names, but the statement points to massive competing pressures facing the Indian government. On the one hand, India, which was already making some 60 percent of global vaccines even before the pandemic, is keen to use its biotech bonafides to win friends and influence people across the developing world. On the other, India itself is part of that world, and with more than 1.3 billion arms to jab — and the second highest confirmed case total in the world — Prime Minister Narendra Modi certainly can't afford to look like he's prioritizing Bangladesh over Bangalore.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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