Thursday. 12/11/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Chris Smith

Dose of realism

Some of my financially motivated friends were not celebrating with the rest of us on Monday. “I wish I’d bought shares in Pfizer,” reflected one, ruefully, as the markets surged off the back of the good news about the coronavirus vaccine that the US pharma giant is developing. It comes as a welcome shot in the arm for the nation’s flagging morale but, as the UK’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam commented at a recent press briefing, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.” What he’s getting at is that these results from Pfizer are preliminary. The phase three trial that will formally show whether the vaccine really works isn’t even over yet and some major questions remain unanswered.

We’re told that the vaccine is 90 per cent effective. So, turning that around, it means that it doesn’t work for one person in ten. So who are those 10 per cent? If they’re chiefly the patients that are also destined to become severely ill from coronavirus, then that makes the vaccine a lot less useful. And how long lasting is the immunity that’s conferred by the new vaccine? The trial has been running for only a matter of months, which means we can only say with certainty that the protection lasts that long. So will we have to find out the hard way that immunity has worn off?

Looking on the bright side, let’s assume that the odds are in our favour and those vulnerable to severe coronavirus are protected. Does that mean we can get back to normal? Ultimately this is likely but not for a long time – a year, realistically. Manufacturing vaccines at the scale required to protect entire populations will be no mean feat; globalisation has resulted in many countries outsourcing vaccine-manufacturing capacity to just a handful of specialist providers. Physically distributing a vaccine that – in the case of Pfizer’s agent – needs to be stored at minus 80C is another major challenge. Then there’s the issue of administering it. In the UK alone we struggle to vaccinate 15 million people against the flu every year, and coronavirus will require us to upscale this by 400 per cent. There’s also the consideration that, alarmingly, surveys in some countries suggest that as many as half of all adults might be reticent to take up a vaccine due to safety concerns.

So, while I welcome the news that at least one of the 20-plus coronavirus vaccines currently in clinical trials is looking likely to reach the finishing line, I am under no illusions that we’re out of the woods or that our present handshake-free, physically distanced existence is going away soon. I do wish I’d bought some Pfizer shares too though…

Chris Smith is a consultant clinical virologist at Cambridge University. He has served as Monocle 24’s health correspondent during the pandemic and also presents ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast and ‘5 Live Science’ on BBC radio.

Politics / Hong Kong

No contest

After a relatively quiet few months, Hong Kong’s political arena was thrown into disarray yesterday when four opposition politicians were kicked out of the Legislative Council, prompting the rest to resign en masse. The development means that “LegCo”, as the council is known, is likely to become a rubber-stamp parliament, much like that on the Chinese mainland. For the pro-democracy side in Hong Kong, this leaves little opportunity to hold the government to account: China’s National Security Law has seen to it that protesters – and now politicians – have effectively been silenced. “Pretty much everything that made Hong Kong such a dynamic, prosperous and successful place is being dismantled at this point,” Isabel Hilton, editor of China Dialogue, told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. “I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that any meaningful representation of the opposition will ever get back into LegCo.”

Media / USA

Understanding the turnout

One thing about last week’s US presidential election is clear. Even though Joe Biden has claimed victory, pollsters’ predictions were off by a country mile, having failed to grasp the enthusiasm, passions and fears on either side of the political aisle. Vivian Schiller, former president and CEO of US public-radio group NPR, and now executive director of Aspen Digital, tells The Monocle Minute that the US media needs to make a more concerted effort to understand the issues that matter to particular communities, whether that’s rural right-leaning voters or the African-American inner-city citizens who voted in record numbers.

“Reporting on the issues, and on the public, is more important than ever before,” says Schiller. “The record turnout that we saw is a statement about the resilience of US democracy. But lurking in that data is darkness [because] a lot of that turnout was driven by deep divisions in our society. And that is something we’re going to have to reckon with.”

Diplomacy / Asia

Around the bloc

The 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit opens today, chaired by Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (pictured). It will be an online gathering for the 10-member bloc with more than 20 meetings scheduled, including the first ASEAN women leaders’ summit. Vietnam chose “cohesive and responsive” as this year’s theme, reflecting its wish for the often disparate group to have more unity in its response to regional and global situations. Among the scheduled topics is finalising an ambitious regional trade deal that will include China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The focus will also be on new ASEAN partnerships – Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will co-chair an India-ASEAN digital summit on the sidelines – and how the bloc can work together to tackle coronavirus. Once the summit is over, Vietnam will be passing the baton to next year’s chair, Brunei. As Asia begins to open up again, a shared approach to recovery would be good news for the region.

Society / Global

Choice words

Language always adapts to unusual times. A few weeks ago, The Monocle Minute covered the many new phrases that have found their way into dictionaries thanks to coronavirus – but English speakers have also been making the most of words already in use. “Lockdown”, the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year, leapt 6,000 per cent in usage in 2020, with “key worker” not far behind. But life goes on away from the virus too: “cookie monsters” and “craftivists” found validation in the Oxford English Dictionary, the former ascribed to anyone “being voraciously hungry or insatiably greedy”. The dictionary’s predominantly non-viral updates also include the names of dishes from Malaysia and Singapore (“bak kut teh”) and China (“bak kwa”), as well as “kitchen-sinking” – bringing all your pent-up, unrelated grievances to an argument. Still, there remains a definite lockdown tinge to the new entries. The past few months might indeed have found more of us cultivating our own “booze can” (noun): “An unlicensed drinking establishment, especially one set up in a private home.”

M24 / On Design

Designing for sleep

Don’t want to wake up on the wrong side of the bed? Well, when it comes to sleep, quality is as important as quantity. For proof, we test out the humble futon, hear about the work of famed mattress-manufacturer Hästens and take to the night skies with design studio Caon.

Monocle Films / Spain

Campus of creativity

“Foster independent thinking” is a key phrase in modern education but few places get it right. We visit Madrid’s Colegio Estudio to meet the enlightened teachers and alumni.

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