‘Groundhog Day’ in the pandemic world

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‘Groundhog Day’ in the pandemic world

What has characterised the actions of virtually all governments throughout the world since the pandemic broke, really at the beginning of 2020, is the realisation that they don’t know what they are doing and hence we get the feeling that the same tactics are being repeated – even though they might have proven to be ineffective in the past. We are going through the same sort of Hell Bill Murray went though in the 1993 film ‘Groundhog Day’. The only, and significant, difference is that the character in the film learnt from the same situations, the world’s governments aren’t.

A new, not unexpected variant (this time omicron) appears and the reaction of the idiots we have chosen to rule over us act in the same way; xenophobic; racist, tribal, euro-centric (and that includes countries like Australia – who, after all, are in the Eurovision Song Contest) and attempt to keep out what is impossible (even in the 14th century but even less so now) the inevitable.

Once omicron was ‘discovered’ in South Africa many scientists were saying that the variant had almost certainly spread throughout the world. But those same governments that say they are ‘following the science’ follow, instead, the populist approach, playing to the gallery of their own populations and electorate, inevitable to the lowest common denominator.

They are the modern day equivalents of Canute – believing that just by saying something it will happen. But as the tide will come in twice a day whatever we may wish so variants of covid will cross borders invisibly. Once we know it exists it has already been around for a while.

But still, now a couple of weeks since it was announced, there has been no significant change in the attitude of the richest societies to the spread of the virus. Knowledge gained over the centuries has told us that such variants will develop if infection rates are allowed to grow in even the most outlying regions.

Because of failings at the very beginning of the pandemic (no joined up thinking, no international co-ordination, no strategy) the only way to control that spread now is through a world wide vaccination programme.

But what has happened (and this is no surprise whatsoever) since the announcement of a new variant is that the societies in the richest parts of the world have become more xenophobic, more racist, more tribal, more euro-centric.

Countries have been ordering more and more vaccines for ‘their’ populations, stock-piling more doses for the future and even taking the first batches of the newer vaccines that are coming into production.

Still no major move has been made to force (in a war situation you don’t ‘ask’) the major pharmaceutical companies to do what is necessary in the circumstances and that is to waiver their control of patents and allow other countries and other companies to produce vaccines for their own populations. This is not necessarily THE answer but it is certainly part of the solution.

It’s been quite the opposite. The British Government has been acting as if it is ‘business as usual’ and have been making agreements with companies which seek to tighten their control of so-called ‘intellectual property’ rather than reduce it.

This is not only stupid, short-sighted and immoral – it is criminal and in the present circumstances those who perpetuate such a situation should be brought to book at the earliest opportunity.

The vaccination programme in Britain ….

Will the UK vaccinate children under 12?

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An ‘independent’ investigation discovers that the most expensive vaccines are the ‘most effective’. What a surprise! Pfizer and Moderna jabs give best overall boost, UK trial finds.

Omicron: Britain plans to vaccinate 25 million in two months – but can it be done?

…. and the rest of the world (perhaps)

Nothing to report here. The richer countries are still hoarding vaccines (even more so now than in the early days of the appearance of vaccines). And those capitalist governments are still refusing to budge on ‘patent waivers’.

Patent waiver

Rich countries must stop blocking the covid vaccine patent waiver.

The future of vaccines

What will tomorrow’s covid-19 vaccines be like? This is probably a meaningless question to the vast majority of the world. They won’t be getting any of the older, less efficient vaccines so there’s no chance of getting the ‘super vaccines’.

The world works for the profits of ‘Big Pharma’!

The BBC, the so-called ‘impartial’ news service posted this article – which was only on the home page of the site for a couple of hours (which says a lot more than the article). So following the science now means we listen to the prognostications of a the boss of a company which has made billions out of the pandemic – after receiving billions from governments to develop the vaccine in the first place. How long are we going to allow these parasites to even speak let alone establish policy? Pfizer boss: Annual covid jabs for years to come.

In this same article it is reported that the UK has ‘secured’ another 114 million doses of vaccines from these uber-profit making companies – at the same time as the spread of the Omicron ‘variant’ is being put down to the lack of vaccination of the vast majority of the world.

Planet pharma: what the industry got out of covid. This links to a podcast.

Mandatory vaccination

Greece to make covid vaccines mandatory for over-60s, but do vaccine mandates work?

Germany to ban unvaccinated people from shops and bars.

Why the UK shouldn’t introduce mandatory covid vaccination.

The ‘mask wearing’ debate

Reintroducing masks in England may be met with resistance – here’s how the government can overcome it.

The Omicron ‘variant’

It looks like Omicron causes milder illness – is this how covid becomes endemic?

Omg, Omicron! Why it’s too soon to panic about covid vaccines and the new variant.

What the Government ants to hear. Omicron: better to be safe (and quick) than sorry.

Will omicron – the new coronavirus variant of concern – be more contagious than delta? A virus evolution expert explains what researchers know and what they don’t .

Poverty in Britain

Families furthest below Minimum Income Standard (MIS) excluded from social security gains.

‘Cold, Hungry and Stressed’ – Child poverty laid bare this winter.

‘Merely tinkering’: expert analysis of the UK government’s new plan to reform social care in England.

Third of Scots find energy bill unaffordable.

Safety in the workplace

How air filters can make covid wards safer for patients and staff.

Hypocrisy runs rife in neo-liberal Britain

I don’t know why people are surprised that there has been ‘one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us’ during the pandemic. That’s been the ‘rule’ of British society for centuries – why should those who think they have the right to rule do anything different just because there’s a virus doing the rounds? I also think that people could have thought of a different term to record their reaction than being ‘sickened’. Seems not the best term to use in the middle of a pandemic. Covid bereaved families ‘sickened’ over No 10 [Downing Street – the British Prime Ministers’ official ‘residence’] Christmas party.

After the pandemic

When will life return to normal after the pandemic?

Covid not over and next pandemic could be more lethal.

Vaccine ‘passports’

Many vaccine passports have security flaws – here’s how to make them safer.

Making money from a crisis

Advertising in the pandemic: how companies used covid as a marketing tool.

UK government criticised after £5 billion in Bounce Back Loans paid to fraudsters.

More on covid pandemic 2020-2?

The ‘unintended consequences’ of speaking too soon

More on covid pandemic 2020-2?

The ‘unintended consequences’ of speaking too soon

Do people remember the adage ‘Better to keep you mouth shut and people think you’re stupid than to open it and prove them right’? In many respects this might be appropriate now with the appearance of the ‘new’ Omicron variant of covid.

The South African’s, in all good faith, made the announcement that they had found a new variant and that it had many more variants than in previous mutations. That information flew around the world and resulted in the not unexpected knee-jerk reaction from many of the world’s governments who still, now two years into the pandemic, don’t have a proper strategy to deal with it.

Once the genie was out of the bottle the South African’s made the announcement that although, yes, there are a lot of changes in the structure of this mutation but that the effects were ‘unusual and mild’. Now whether that news went out alongside the discovery of Omicron is, to some extent, academic. Panic had set it and there was no way of stopping it any time soon.

In reaction a number of governments, primarily the most, historically, stupid, i.e., those of the United Kingdom and the United States, immediately placed a travel ban on anyone coming from a huge chunk of Southern Africa. (That the South Africans were surprised at this reaction does say something about their understanding of the world.)

Both the US and the UK are those countries most in the world to put the blame on any problem on anyone else but themselves. All that is ‘good’ in the country is home grown, all that is ‘bad’ has come from outside. The fact that both countries are disasters at many levels is just ignored; poverty, inequality, racism, corruption, attempts to change governance to benefit the minority, to name just a few.

Then the World Health Organisation (WHO) weighs in by declaring it ‘a variant of interest’ when there is still little really known of the dangers. They then play the game by choosing the next letter in the Greek alphabet. All this does is justify, to those knee-jerkers, their actions.

Then, too late, the same WHO state that the appearance of this new variant just goes to show the necessity of expanding the vaccine distribution to those parts of the world who have seen the lowest vaccination rates. If they thought that by following the actions they did this would shake the rich world into more compassion they displayed an unbelievable degree of naiveté.

All they did was justify those frightened and selfish populations to extend the proportion of THEIR population who will have an extra, ‘booster’, dose of the valuable vaccines. Instead of making more vaccines available to the poorest in the world all these actions mean there are less now – and it will also cause these rich countries to hoard more and more stocks ‘just in case’ in the future.

The news in Britain now is all about ‘keeping the virus out’ – as it is also in a number of other countries. But if they were ‘following the science’ (as they keep on telling us they are) then they would know the consensus is that it is probably all over the world already, it has just not yet been identified – or perhaps, realising the likely consequences, some countries have not made the news public.

We should remember that the flu pandemic (that was much more virulent than covid) of 1918 was called Spanish Flue because it was Spain that first made it public. At the end of the First World War belligerent countries kept news of their outbreaks quiet in case it gave succour to the enemy. I’ve read one theory that it actually started in the USA and was brought over by troops when America entered the war in 1917 – but no one in that ‘land of the free’ would ever admit that. (That might count as a ‘conspiracy theory’ but I like it nonetheless.) Spain was neutral and so had nothing to lose – other than the pandemic (which almost certainly did NOT start in Spain) being named after their country.

In the present circumstances the issues that many people have been arguing for over the past months, i.e., the rich countries actually living up to their promises and providing vaccines via the Covax scheme (although that smacks too much of charity for this writer) or abolishing the patent laws that make it impossible for the poorer countries of the world (who aren’t totally ignorant of science and DO have the abilities to produce the vaccines themselves) to set up facilities for their own regions. All they lack is the recipe.

Another consequence of this fiasco of the last few days is that countries (especially the poorest) will be more reluctant to announce anything that might look unusual in relation to the pandemic and hence it will go on, and on, and ……

Perhaps some people should think before they speak.

The vaccination programme in Britain ….

All UK adults to be offered booster jab.

Does AstraZeneca’s covid vaccine give longer-lasting protection than mRNA shots?

…. and the rest of the world

It is happening around the world but no thanks to the actions of the rich countries of the world.

Why are covid cases in India decreasing, despite the low double vaccination rate?

The mutating virus – how the story evolved so far

New covid variant: UK urgently brings in travel restrictions to stop spread of ‘the worst one we’ve seen so far’.

The hunt for coronavirus variants: how the new one was found and what we know so far.

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting new Omicron variant.

Javid defends ‘swift action’ on Omicron variant.

New covid variant: Will new measures against Omicron work?

Omicron is the new covid kid on the block: five steps to avoid, ten to take immediately.

Are new covid variants like Omicron linked to low vaccine coverage?

Travel bans aren’t the answer to stopping new covid variant Omicron.

South African doctor who raised alarm about omicron variant says symptoms are ‘unusual but mild’.

Omicron: WHO warns of ‘high infection risk’ around globe.

Omicron: why the WHO designated it a variant of concern.

Future prevention?

Could a chewing gum really reduce the spread of covid-19? Maybe – but here’s what we need to know first.

The unexpected from the pandemic

We expected people with asthma to fare worse during covid. Turns out they’ve had a break.

How have restrictions worked?

Household mixing during covid-19: our research suggests adherence to lockdowns in England declined over time.

Mask wearing wasn’t disputed in previous crises – so why is it so hotly contested today?

Poverty in Britain

Communicating about housing the UK: obstacles, openings, and emerging recommendations – a report produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Foodbanks hand out 32 meals every minute – and it’s about to get to worse.

How poorer citizens pay the price of economic change in the UK.

Corruption in Britain

Labour calls for inquiry into Tory peer Michelle Mone over PPE contract.

‘Collateral damage’

Covid travel restrictions have created new borders for migrants who want to visit home.

Not really ‘collateral damage’ but the changes in social care being proposed are happening now due to the disastrous performance in this sector due to the Government of the Buffoon failing to understand the situation at the beginning of the pandemic. Social care cap: how the new system will work and why it’s unfair.

This might not be the best place for this article (not least because it addresses the situation in the United States) but the effect of the pandemic on medical staff has been worse due to the way the health services (in all countries of the world) have been increasing developed towards profit rather than care for the sick. If it has been happening across the Atlantic it will be happening, t a greater or lesser extent, elsewhere. Either now or at some time in the not too distant future.Why health-care workers are quitting in droves – in the United States.

More on covid pandemic 2020-2?

Cuba’s vaccine could end up saving millions of lives

Cuba's Soberania 2 vaccine against covid-19

Cuba’s Soberania 2 vaccine against covid-19

More on Cuba

[This article first appeared on the Jacobin website on 22nd November 2021. This version is taken from the Portside website which published on 24th November 2021. It’s reproduced as it appeared then. While the richer countries of the ‘Global North’ seek to find more and more ways to hoard vaccines for their own, privileged populations the vast majority of people in the ‘Global South’ go unvaccinated. Campaigns for the abandoning of patent restrictions to allow even more countries to produce the various vaccines have, so far, achieved nothing. When the potential profits of ‘Big Pharma’ are at risk capitalist governments will find all kinds of spurious reasons to maintain the status quo. It is for the ‘Global South’ to help itself.]

Cuba’s vaccine could end up saving millions of lives

Thanks to its public biotech sector and its government’s deep commitment to public health, Cuba is now the only low-income country to have made its own covid vaccine, and it’s poised to help millions around the world.

Much of the press coverage of Cuba last week focused on the anti-government protests that didn’t eventuate. Less covered has been something of potentially greater global significance: its vaccination drive.

After a dire twelve months, when a too hasty reopening sent the pandemic surging, deaths peaking, and the country back into a crippling shutdown, a successful vaccination program has turned the pandemic around in the country. Cuba is now one of the few lower-income countries to have not only vaccinated a majority of its population, but the only one to have done so with a vaccine it developed on its own.

The saga suggests a path forward for the developing world as it continues struggling with the pandemic in the face of ongoing corporate-driven vaccine apartheid, and points more broadly to what’s possible when medical science is decoupled from private profit.

The Safer Gamble

According to Johns Hopkins University, as of the time of writing, Cuba has fully vaccinated 78 percent of its people, putting it ninth in the world, above wealthy countries like Denmark, China, and Australia (the United States, with a little below 60 percent of its population vaccinated, is ranked fifty-sixth). The turnaround since the vaccination campaign began in May has revived the country’s fortunes in the face of the twin shocks of the pandemic and an intensifying US blockade.

After a peak of nearly ten thousand infections and close to one hundred deaths each day, both figures have now plummeted. With 100 percent of the country having taken at least one vaccine dose by the end of last month, the country reopened its borders on November 15 to tourism, roughly a tenth of its economy, and has reopened schools. This makes Cuba an outlier among low-income countries, which have vaccinated only 2.8 percent of their combined populations. This is owed largely to vaccine hoarding by the developed world and their jealous guarding of patent monopolies, which bar poorer countries from developing generic versions of the vaccines that were produced through public funding in the first place.

Key to this outcome was Cuba’s decision to develop its own vaccines, two of which — Abdala, named for a poem penned by an independence hero, and Soberana 2, Spanish for ‘sovereign’ — were finally given official regulatory approval in July and August. In the words of Vicente Vérez Bencomo, the internationally acclaimed head of the country’s Finlay Vaccine Institute, the country was ‘betting it safe’ by waiting longer to manufacture its own vaccines. This way, it would avoid dependence on bigger allies like Russia and China while adding a new commercial export at a time of ongoing economic hardship.

These efforts are already underway. Vietnam, with only 39 percent of its population fully vaccinated, inked a deal to buy 5 million vaccine doses, with Cuba recently shipping more than 1 million of them to its communist ally, 150,000 of which were donated. Venezuela (32 percent fully vaccinated) also agreed to buy $12 million worth of the three-dose vaccine and has already started administering it, while Iran (51 percent) and Nigeria (1.6 percent) have agreed to partner with the country to develop their own home-grown vaccines. Syria (4.2 percent) has recently discussed with Cuban officials the prospect of doing the same.

The two vaccines are part of a suite of five covid vaccines Cuba is developing. That includes a vaccine delivered nasally that’s progressed to Phase II of clinical studies, one of only five vaccines in the entire world that have a nasal application, according to one of its top scientists, that could be particularly useful if proven to be safe and effective, given the virus’s entry through the nasal cavity. It also includes a booster shot specially designed to work for those already inoculated with other vaccines, and which was recently trialed on Italian tourists. Since September, Cuba’s been in the process of getting World Health Organization approval for its vaccines, which would open the door to its widespread adoption.

A Different Vaccine

Several aspects make Cuba’s vaccines unique besides their country of origin, according to Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow. At the heart of it is Cuba’s decision to pursue a more traditional protein vaccine rather than the more experimental mRNA technology used for the covid vaccines we’ve become familiar with, which had been in development for decades before the onset of the pandemic led to a breakthrough.

Because of this, Cuba’s vaccine can be kept in a fridge or even at room temperature, as opposed to the subpolar temperatures the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at or the freezer temperatures Moderna’s vaccine requires. ‘In the Global South, where huge amounts of the population have no access to electricity, it’s just another technological obstacle,’ says Yaffe.

And while the mRNA technology, which has never been used on kids before, has meant a lag between adult and child vaccination in the developed world — and means vaccines for kids under five are still being developed — Cuba aimed from the outset to create a vaccine that kids could take. As of this month, it’s fully vaccinated more than four-fifths of all kids aged two to eighteen.

While roughly two-thirds of all kids were shut out from school in Latin America and the Caribbean as of September, Cuba has now reopened its classrooms. Gloria La Riva, an activist and independent reporter who has been visiting Cuba throughout the year and has been in Havana since mid-October, described the scene at the Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio as parents and grandparents turned out for the school’s reopening.

‘It’s a very big thing for the families,’ she says. ‘Everyone feels this enormous pride.’

The Power of Nonprofit

There’s one more factor that sets the Cuban vaccine apart. ‘The Cuban vaccine is 100 percent entirely a product of a public biotech sector,’ says Yaffe.

While in the United States and other developed countries, lifesaving medicines are developed thanks largely to public funding before their profits and distribution are ruthlessly privatized for corporate enrichment, Cuba’s biotech sector is wholly publicly owned and funded. That means Cuba has de-commodified a vital human resource — the exact opposite policy direction that we’ve seen in these last four decades of neoliberalism.

Cuba has poured billions of dollars into creating a domestic biotech industry since the 1980s, when a combination of an outbreak of dengue fever and new economic sanctions from then president Ronald Reagan forced its hand. Despite a crushing blockade by the United States, responsible for a third of the world’s pharmaceutical production, Cuba’s biotech sector has thrived: it makes nearly 70 percent of the roughly eight hundred medicines that Cubans consume and eight of the eleven vaccines in the country’s national immunization program, and it exports hundreds of millions of vaccines a year. The revenues are then reinvested into the sector.

‘All these vaccines that have a very large impact on science are very expensive vaccines, economically inaccessible to the country,’ Vérez Bencomo said recently about Cuba’s decision to develop its own vaccines.

The sector is internationally acclaimed. Cuba has won ten Gold Medals from the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for, among other things, developing the world’s first meningitis B vaccine in 1989. In 2015, Cuba became the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a result of both the retroviral drugs it had produced and its robust public health care system.

In this way, Cuba has been able to do the unthinkable, developing its own vaccine and outdoing much of the developed world in overcoming the pandemic, despite its size and level of wealth, and despite a policy of concerted economic strangulation from a hostile government off its shores. International solidarity efforts have been vital, too. When the US blockade meant a shortage of syringes on the island, jeopardizing its vaccination campaign, solidarity groups from the United States alone sent 6 million syringes to Cuba, with the Mexican government sending eight hundred thousand more, and more than one hundred thousand on top of that coming from Cubans in China.

A Source of Hope

Even so, there is some uncertainty around Cuba’s vaccines. Their use in Venezuela has met objection from the country’s pediatric physicians unions and medical and scientific academies, on the same basis as other critics, who say the vaccine trial results haven’t been peer-reviewed and published in international scientific journals. The Pan American Health Organization has called on Cuba to make the results public.

For his part, Vérez Bencomo blames an international community hostile to Cuba. In a September interview, he charged that Cuba’s scientists were being discriminated against by major journals, who he said had a history of rejecting submissions from Cubans while later publishing similar research from other countries, and act as ‘a barrier that tends to marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries.’

These are pretty serious charges from a globally respected scientist. A winner of the Cuban National Chemistry Award and a 2005 WIPO Gold Medal, Vérez Bencomo led the team that worked with a Canadian scientist to develop the world’s first semisynthetic vaccine, creating a more affordable shot to protect against Haemophilus influenzae type B. Upon helping develop the low-cost vaccine against meningitis, he was barred in 2005 from traveling to California to accept an award for it, with the George W. Bush State Department deeming his visit ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States.’ In 2015, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by France’s then minister of social affairs and health, who commended him for his work and called him a ‘friend of France.’ (Vérez Bencomo did not respond to a request for an interview).

While Cuba’s rebound from the pandemic suggests his and the Cuban government’s confidence in the vaccines isn’t misplaced, it may take some more time for them to get the international scientific community’s official imprimatur. Should it come, it would prove a powerful refutation of the corporate-driven vaccine model that has so far dominated, which holds that, in line with the talking points of Big Pharma, only profit-driven competition can produce the kind of lifesaving innovation the world is desperate for.

Perhaps more importantly, it may be a way for the developing world to finally crawl out of the pandemic-shaped hole it looks no nearer to escaping now, months after vaccines have been rolled out in wealthy countries. Western governments have continued to oppose calls from the Global South to waive vaccine patents and allow them to manufacture or buy cheaper generic versions, leaving the vast majority of the world’s people still vulnerable to the virus — and, ironically, endangering us all, should new, vaccine-resistant strains mutate in the country-sized petri dishes this unbalanced policy has created. In that sense, we should all hope that Cuba’s vaccines are proven as successful as its scientists are sure they are.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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