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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.


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