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TWIB: Delta’s lesson: Think locally, act globally
Also: Venezuela and the culture wars, Biden bombs Somalia, Tunisia’s political crisis, etc.
Welcome to The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and also consider subscribing.
Delta’s lesson: Think locally, act globally
As the delta variant of covid spreads through the population, leaders in America’s public and private sectors have swung into action. They’ve tightened guidance on mask-wearing, redoubled exhortations to get vaccinated, and in some cases strengthened the incentive to do so. What they haven’t done is spell out—or even, so far as we can tell, take on board—the most important lesson of the delta surge: the covid pandemic is fundamentally a global problem, and Americans won’t be safe until it’s treated as such.
The failure of affluent nations, notably the US, to do more to get vaccines to poorer nations is often cast as a moral failure. And it is one. But it’s also a failure to wisely pursue self-interest. The delta surge demonstrates that vaccination abroad translates into protection at home—and that a lack of vaccination abroad could eventually nullify the effects of vaccination at home.
The delta variant appeared in India late last year, when almost none of the country’s 1.4 billion people were vaccinated, and spread rapidly through the population. By May, when the World Health Organization deemed delta a “variant of concern,” only three percent of Indians were fully vaccinated.
Now delta has become the dominant strain in the US. And, as public health historian John M. Barry writes in the New York Times, “whether or not delta has increased in virulence, another still more dangerous variant may surface.” He continues: “Will covid-19, in some form, escape immune protection?... Unless its opportunity to mutate is cut off by stopping its spread—an impossibility with billions worldwide unprotected by vaccine—eventually a variant will likely emerge that evades current vaccines and natural infection.”
He’s got the logic right. The likelihood of an unprecedentedly dangerous mutant strain emerging is a function of the number of mutant strains that arise worldwide. And that number in turn depends on the number of people in whom the virus is allowed to replicate robustly and then spread. So our most powerful tool against the fate Barry fears is, as he suggests, radically ramped up vaccination worldwide.
Is that doable at an acceptable cost? One approach to answering that question is to first ask how America currently defines “acceptable cost” when it comes to protecting its people.
Consider last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee vote on President Biden’s $753 billion defense budget proposal. Motivated largely by the idea that the military needs more money to counter China, the committee voted to increase the budget by $25 billion. That’s billion with a b, added on top of a military budget that already surpasses China’s by over $500 billion.
So that’s one way to spend $25 billion in the name of protecting the American people. Here’s another: The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen estimates that a $25 billion investment in an existing Department of Health program could, by sharply increasing vaccine access in low- and middle-income countries, “cut years off the tail of the pandemic.” And a group of experts cited in a long Economist piece on the covid challenge agreed that Public Citizen’s approach “was one sure-fire way” to boost vaccine output. So it looks like reallocating about three percent of next year’s defense budget would be enough to sharply reduce the chances of new, more dangerous strains of covid overwhelming the world.
Perhaps predictably, the Economist piece doesn’t spend much time on the possibility of the government compelling pharmaceutical companies to share intellectual property for vaccines and their components. The conventional wisdom is that a revision of IP rules isn’t a silver bullet. And, in a narrow sense, that’s true. It takes time to transfer technological know-how and build new factories for making vaccines and their components; waiving or adjusting IP restrictions won’t change that.
Still, the fact that IP revisions won’t pay off overnight doesn’t mean they won’t pay off. If you want more tech know-how transferred and more factories built, then expand the number of companies, nonprofits, and government institutions that, by virtue of expanded IP access, have the wherewithal and incentive to do those things.
Expanded IP access needn’t be a complete giveaway. The government can set royalties at a level that rewards innovation yet is low enough to put vaccines within reach of even the poorest people in the poorest countries—assuming some subsidy from governments and philanthropies in affluent nations.
It isn’t just a few famous vaccine companies that should have their control of IP loosened. Different companies own the recipes for different components of vaccines, and, according to Aisling Irwin of Nature, “these companies are proving slow to license their manufacturing.” Production of crucial lipids, for example, has been limited by IP issues, according to an expert quoted in Chemistry World. And, as the Economist piece notes, there are numerous firms that could help produce vaccines and ingredients but have been unable to secure licensing deals.
Biden has already said that he supports a proposed IP waiver for vaccines at the World Trade Organization, but, given opposition from other rich countries, that proposal is unlikely to get through the WTO’s consensus-based system. Still, the US government can get a lot done without WTO approval. Collectively, American companies such as TriLink Biotechnologies own the IP for many crucial parts of the vaccine supply chain, and vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna are both US-based (not to mention the fact that the Moderna vaccine relies on IP belonging to the US government). In addition to forcing these companies to license their technology at sub-market rates, the US government can invest in building vaccine factories and training people to run them.
In April, Biden told Congress that “we will become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries, just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.” But the US didn’t produce 250 airplanes per day by trusting in the magic of free enterprise. Congress passed bills empowering President Franklin D. Roosevelt to force companies to refit factories and accept licensing deals, even if that meant sharing proprietary information with a direct competitor.
While ramping up production, Biden should also change how America distributes vaccines abroad. Currently, rather than prioritize places with the highest need (and the highest likelihood of producing a new variant), the US and other rich nations tend to keep vaccines for themselves or send them to allies. But, as Thomas J. Bollyky, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Robert C. Reiner Jr. write in the Lancet, “the areas of greatest need, taking into account the available data on secured vaccines and likely SARS-CoV-2 variants, are in Latin America, central and eastern Europe, central Asia, and South Africa—settings that have received among the fewest COVID-19 vaccine donations to date.”
The US government has already used emergency powers to do things like help vaccine makers get preferential access to key ingredients, generally in order to secure more shots for Americans. It’s time Biden put those powers in the service of a broader vision of how to help Americans—which would also, as it happens, put them in the service of the world.
In Inkstick, Gustavo Berrizbeitia argues that America's culture war over socialism obscures the real cause of Venezuela's political crisis: kleptocracy. Berrizbeitia, who is from Venezuela but studies in the US, notes that his country's governance crisis is strikingly similar to crises in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all of which have increasingly authoritarian right-wing governments. Yet fear-mongering about Venezuelan socialism leads the US to treat Caracas much differently than its similarly corrupt neighbors: "[O]nly Venezuela is subject to crippling sanctions, even though the State Department has its own list of corrupt officials of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — of whom many have ties to their countries’ presidents."
In the Guardian, Damian Carrington reports that, according to new research, "record-shattering" heat waves will become increasingly common over the next three decades. Climate scientists say that North America, Europe, and China are particularly vulnerable to major temperature spikes and that this year’s brutal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest was a long way from the worst case scenario.
In the latest edition of "Who in the world is America bombing," the US conducted airstrikes against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia last week, marking the first time the US has bombed the country since Biden took office. The administration said that the attacks were done in “collective self-defense”—a justification that, as Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar noted, is vague and legally dubious. In Responsible Statecraft, Bonnie Kristian explains the history of America's military intervention in Somalia and urges Biden to end it. "Insofar as there are any alleged U.S. interests in Somalia, they are interests created by our intervention, which is, in this sense, self-perpetuating," Kristian writes. In Vice, Amanda Sperber writes about the difficulties Somalis face in seeking justice when US airstrikes kill civilians—even when the US has admitted to killing them. "Any semblance of what these families would consider a reasonable response to the deaths seems far away," Sperber writes. "Experts say reparations would make a difference, to start, but are ultimately only the beginning of justice."
Earlier this week, Tunisian President Kais Saied fired Tunisia's prime minister and disbanded its parliament in response to protests over the government's pandemic response and economic crisis. A vast majority of Tunisians support the move, but opposition figures and legal experts argue that it violates Tunisia’s 2014 constitution and could be the first step toward restoring authoritarian rule. In Vox, Jen Kirby talks to Tunisia expert Sarah Yerkes about what this crisis means for the country's fragile democracy. In the Arab Center Washington DC, political scientist Daniel Brumberg takes stock of Tunisia’s political landscape and argues that the best approach for the US is to "offer a comprehensive economic relief package in return for concrete steps that will help Saied honor his promise to protect rather than destroy the country’s democracy."
—Robert Wright and Connor Echols
My weekly conversation with famous frenemy Mickey Kaus can be found after 9:30 p.m. ET (give or take an hour) this evening on The Wright Show podcast feed or at bloggingheads.tv or the bloggingheads YouTube channel. And our after-podcast podcast—the Parrot Room conversation, which is available to paid subscribers and Patreon supporters—can be found around the same time by going to the NZN Substack home page—right here—and clicking on this week’s Parrot Room episode.