Wednesday. 23/12/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / CHRIS SMITH

Code switching

Just when I thought I was getting on top of the rules, with a coronavirus-compatible Christmas gift-wrapped and ready to go, everything mutated – including the new virus itself. Five days of festivities became one and, sadly, my mother-in-law now can’t come to stay. Needless to say, I’m devastated.

What’s provoked this abrupt change of policy is the dramatic uptick in detections of a new variant of the coronavirus. Called VUI-202012/01, it contains a constellation of 17 genetic changes. These are peppered throughout the viral genome but many are concentrated in the region that codes for the “spike” protein that forms the outer coat of the virus. The spike is the critical component used by the virus to latch onto and invade our cells.

Changes here have important implications. If the spike changes significantly, the virus might not be recognised by the immune response provoked by vaccination. At the moment, thankfully, scientists don’t think things have gone that far but many regard this as a stepping stone to a future variant that does have this ability. This means that surveillance is critical, so that we can keep a searchlight trained on the virus and anticipate when it’s about to make its next move.

Regardless of whether it can sidestep a vaccine, a change in the spike can also create a much more transmissible virus and this is what researchers believe may be happening right now. Data suggests that the new variant is outcompeting the original coronavirus strain, a bit like a bestseller in a bookstore. The government’s new hardcore “stay at home” restrictions are therefore intended to buy time while the vaccine roll-out scales up.

So far, half a million Brits have had their first dose of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine and, bar a warning for those with a track record of severe allergies, the rollout has been uneventful and the agent well tolerated. Nevertheless, half a million people in the UK is still a drop in the ocean. And what none of the vaccine makers can say for sure yet is how future-proof their vaccines are. For how long will the immunity they provide last? Have we created the immunological equivalent of the Forth Bridge, that needs repainting before you’ve even finished the job? And are the reassuring noises issued from politicians – that the new variant won’t affect vaccine performance – reliable? The experiments are ongoing, we’re told, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out.

Chris Smith is Monocle’s health and science correspondent. He is a consultant virologist at Cambridge University and editor of the Naked Scientists podcast.

Climate / Global

Emission statement

During a year when many rode bicycles instead of planes, trains and automobiles, carbon emissions declined by the biggest amount since the Second World War. The UN and the Global Carbon Project both calculated a record 7 per cent reduction in global emissions to 34 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. “What’s surprising is that emissions have not fallen enough,” says Akshat Rathi, climate and energy reporter for Bloomberg News, noting that in order to reach global climate goals, even greater annual cuts of about eight per cent are required over the next few decades. The question is how to maintain that pace next year as life returns to normal and global travel resumes. Wind and solar power becoming less expensive can help but governments and industry will need to consider more action elsewhere. It’s time for countries to make clear what a “green recovery” looks like in practice. Listen to our full discussion of business priorities in 2021 on tomorrow’s ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

Aviation / Global

Up in the air

It was almost 100 years ago that Imperial Airways began handing out novels to alleviate passengers’ boredom but it wasn’t until 1952 that PanAm introduced the first in-flight magazine. The idea has since developed into a major industry. Magazines such as BA’s High Life – whose past cover stars range from Prince Charles (1977) to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2019) and which has a potential monthly readership of 3.8 million sedentary passengers – offer a uniquely captive audience to advertisers.

With the airline industry hitting some serious turbulence this year, many printed in-flight magazines were removed from planes, including High Life and Air Canada’s enRoute. Both airlines now push their online editions to passengers but would be remiss to bid farewell to their print titles for good. Even as we enter the age of in-flight wi-fi, we all have a lot to gain from a little elevated literature.

Urbanism / Global

Movers and shakers

Tackling inequality in our cities requires investment and more mobility options. That includes reckoning with informal transport – everything from ride-hailing platforms to tuktuks and auto-rickshaws – that fill transit gaps but can be tricky to legislate for (and against). This is where the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation comes in. The new initiative, which is run by the Montréal-based NewCities foundation, hopes to connect the operators of these modes of transport with municipalities and investors, particularly in developing countries in what it refers to as the global south. “It’s all part of the mobility revolution. Informal transportation is how billions of people move around,” John Rossant, chairman of NewCities, tells The Monocle Minute. “We are very excited about this. It will help to fully integrate the people who operate these services.” Acknowledging the realities of how people move around, and providing the necessary support to help them to do so, can help cities to build robust, accessible transit networks for all.

Transport / Switzerland

Peak travel

When the Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in 2016 the trans-Alpine railway journey from northern Switzerland to Ticino became much faster but lost some of the passengers who travelled for the panoramic views. Swiss rail operator Südostbahn has now identified a gap in the timetable and started to operate a new service on the old pre-tunnel route with a sleek Traverso train, courtesy of Stadler. Treno Gottardo runs from Zürich and Basel to Ticino every hour, catering to those who are in less of a rush and want to enjoy the more scenic route in a spacious seat. Hopes are high for the new service as it should also boost domestic tourism in central Switzerland: Alpine destinations such as Andermatt will gain a convenient connection to Zürich. Offering a premium service on this famed, wintery route is a big step for Südostbahn, which is fast developing itself as more than just a regional operator that shuttles passengers from A to B.

M24 / The Chiefs

Best of 2020, part 1

Monocle’s Tom Edwards guides us through a selection of highlights from the year’s interviews. From CEOs to city mayors and presidents, Tyler Brûlé sat down with those at the top to talk leadership and strategy.

Monocle Films / Melbourne

Melbourne retail special: Gertrude Street

Australia is a country that knows how to shop and its canny citizens want more than the colourless clicks of an online spree. Melbourne’s Gertrude Street, once overlooked, is now one of the city’s most vibrant high streets and home to a mix of independent shops. Monocle Films meets six retailers who anchor the street.

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