Here is today’s foreign policy mandate: Marked today a year since the WHO declared a coronavirus pandemic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his first visit to the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil’s Lula makes first political remarks since his corruption case was dropped.
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The prophet of the pandemic
Today has been a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
The past year has revealed harsh truths about how different countries view the connection between their societies and their economies, the fragility of global health infrastructure, and the predatory nature of global competition since vaccines became available.
Not many people saw this coming, but some did. Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer referred to by the New York Times as “the prophet of this pandemic,” is familiar with regular foreign policy readers. Her September 2019 article warning how ill-prepared the world was for a global pandemic makes for scary reading today.
I spoke to Garrett about her thoughts about the past year and what she is worried about now. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FP: Take us back to before the pandemic. Why did you think something like this was coming?
LG: I was convinced that at least around Christmas 2019 we were looking at a SARS phenomenon similar to 2003. I’ve been monitoring what’s coming in from China and it looked to me like coverage was already in place. very similar to what I went through in 2003 because I was in China and traveled all over the country during the SARS epidemic, so I had a pretty good idea of what the Chinese playbook looked like. I was angry as early as the second week of January – angry.
It was very clear to me that the Chinese were giving out incorrect data on case numbers and deaths. That was also clear to me Li Wenliang and other brave Chinese doctors who told the truth were punished or imprisoned, and Chinese journalists brave enough to tell the truth have already been punished or disappeared. And that none of the international players really did a lot and it was just incredibly frustrating.
And I tried to clear the warnings and was attacked. I’ve had death threats. I’ve had people telling me I was a fear maker and that someone should lock me up. The general mood was really terrible.
FP: Fast forward to today, and vaccines made the mood a lot more positive. Do you share this positive attitude?
LG: Well, we have more than 200 vaccines in development and so far all but two are still in the pipeline. That is amazing.
And of those who have signed up for actual permits, two are home runs. That’s incredible.
And a lot has to do with things the National Institutes for Health (NIH) have funded and operated on for many years. This is all based on the shoulders of the Ebola epidemics as the platforms for Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna were first used to develop a vaccine against Ebola.
Now we have a whole new set of templates for future epidemics, a whole new approach – and this approach is much faster.
FP: What surprised you most over the past year?
LG: I’ve always been suspicious of the Trump administration, but I never imagined that the President of the United States was deliberately sabotaging, it was just inscrutable. I was involved in the film Contagion, and when we brainstormed and imagined courses of action, we never thought that the worst performance would come from the United States. We never thought there would be a president who didn’t want the epidemic to be controlled. That would have been a conspiracy that even the madmen in Hollywood would not have supported.
FP: The first reaction was heavily criticized, but doesn’t the Trump administration deserve the credit for its “Operation Warp Speed” vaccination initiative?
LG: Well, it’s complicated – because as I said, the whole approach to vaccine development preceded Trump. it all happened before him.
Here’s what I would credit them with: They gave big bucks to companies to get them to speed up their operations. But the basic idea of what to do, how these vaccines are made, they all already knew. I don’t think we have a vaccine because of the warp speed of the Trump administration. I think it speeded it up.
I mean, with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, both CEOs were telling stories about January 24th, 2020 – the day the Chinese released the genome sequence. They started making a vaccine that day. So it’s not like they need to be pushed in.
FP: What are you looking at next? What are you worried about?
LG: I look at the variants and follow them closely. I am most concerned about Brazil. You could very well have an epidemic that lasts into next year.
And now that Lula is out of jail and all charges are dropped, they’re going to vote and it’s going to be just as divisive as what we just went through in the United States. I mean, this could be catastrophic and at least two mutant strains have come from Brazil so far. It could be the mixing vessel for this virus to develop.
FP: We have seen some countries vaccinate their populations very quickly – notably Israel and the UK. Is there anything to learn there?
LG: Well the Israeli experience is really important to keep an eye on as there are two big things there.
First, they vaccinated a greater percentage of their citizens than other countries. We can contact them to find out if vaccination leads to a reduction in transmission.
This is a point that many people have overlooked. Part of the rush to get these vaccines out was that the studies weren’t designed to test whether the vaccine successfully blocked transmission or not; that would have taken another year or two of study.
So when you talk about 95 percent effectiveness, you’re not talking about protection, but about 95 percent blocking the progression to a serious disease.
So we know the vaccines are really good at protecting individuals, but we don’t yet know if they’re good at protecting societies. That is why we all pay a lot of attention to Israel. We have to see if we can stop the spread.
What we are following today
Netanyahu to UAE. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his first official visit to the United Arab Emirates today, less than two weeks before Israel’s election. According to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu will meet Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at Abu Dhabi airport for about two hours. Initial reports indicated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would also attend the meeting, although Saudi officials have denied it.
Ivory Coast PM is dying. The Ivory Coast Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko died after fighting cancer in a German hospital, the Ivory Coast government reported on Wednesday. Bakayoko had just been re-elected to his parliamentary seat in Saturday’s elections and received 90 percent of the votes in his district. President Alassane Ouattara named his chief of staff Patrick Achi interim prime minister on Monday, citing Bakayoko’s ill health. Bakayoko is the second Ivorian Prime Minister to die in office last year after Amadou Gon Coulibaly suffered from heart problems last July.
Brazil’s presidential race. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned to the political arena on Wednesday when he sharply criticized President Jair Bolsonaro for his “stupid decisions”.
“This country has no government, this country does not care about the economy, job creation, wages, health care, the environment, education, young people,” Lula said at a press conference. When Bolsonaro responded to comments on CNN Brazil, he appeared unimpressed. “He’s grazing, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Bolsonaro.
Magufuli’s whereabouts. It has been 12 days since Tanzanian President John Magufuli was seen publicly, leading to speculation that the leader may be seriously ill. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu claims Magufuli is currently in a hospital in Kenya and being treated for COVID-19 symptoms, although the claim has not been confirmed.
The Kenyan newspaper The Nation reported Wednesday that an unnamed African leader had been admitted to a hospital in Nairobi. Magufuli has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, and the country has not submitted virus data to the World Health Organization since May.
US-China Relations. The Biden government will make its first high-level face-to-face contact with Chinese officials on March 18 in Alaska. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet with Yang Jiechi, Director of the Chinese Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
bits and pieces
Problems are brewing ahead of the annual Eurovision Song Contest as Belarus’s contribution raises concerns that the song violates the rules against political statements in the competition.
Galasy ZMesta, the band selected by the Belarusian state broadcaster for this year’s competition, has already performed at rallies in support of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. But it’s the lyrics of the song that caused the most excitement.
The song, Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll teach you), contains lyrics that mock protests against Lukashenko that have been going on for months. The line “I’ll teach you how to dance to the tune, I’ll teach you to pick the bait, I’ll teach you to walk the line” has particularly annoyed opponents.
An online petition launched by Eurovision fans to remove the band from the competition has received 2,000 signatures so far.
That’s it for today.
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Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Correction, March 11, 2020: Hungary and Slovakia have independently approved the Sputnik V vaccine. The President of the Czech Republic is also applying for approval, but this process is still ongoing. Yesterday’s newsletter incorrectly described the status of Sputnik V in the Czech Republic.