The post-COVID world this week: A new scientific consensus, the vaccine challenge in Asia, and a new role for the WTO

The future is here: A guide to the post-COVID world 03/06/2021

Welcome to your guide to where the world is headed during the pandemic era and beyond. Each week, we’ll bring you the latest and most significant expert insights and international news about how coronavirus is reshaping international affairs. To stay updated each week, sign up to the newsletter here.

Let’s take a spin around the globe, in seven minutes or less.

In top stories this week:

  • New variants of COVID-19 have erased some of the hope around vaccines.
  • AstraZeneca has made advances in France, but in India it’s a different story.
  • A country music legend has taken a spin on her hit song to encourage vaccine take-up. 
  • But first…

The big story

This week’s key theme: What global trade has to do with COVID-19

A global dispute over access to COVID-19 vaccines suggests a new role for the World Trade Organization, although purists will bridle at that possibility, according to the Financial Times

“People are dying in poor countries,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on her first day in office on March 1, Reuters reports. “The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses.”

India and South Africa proposed waiving the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement rules on intellectual property (IP) that govern the production and export of vaccines and other medical supplies needed to combat COVID-19, Bloomberg explains. Backers of the exemption, humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières among them, say it’s unscrupulous for wealthy economies to hoard the vaccine and drug companies to put profit before lives in poor countries, the newswire adds. 

More than fifty developing countries have backed the proposal by India and South Africa, the Financial Times explains in its Trade Secrets briefing. But the United States, the European Union, and other wealthy economies oppose it, Reuters reports. It’s predictable that advanced economies where pharmaceutical companies are based have pushed back hard, the Financial Times adds. 

“Many companies are willing to license their IP at low or even no cost but want contractual agreements to ensure it is developed safely and not pilfered,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued in November 2020. “But India and South Africa want to obtain this technology without paying for it and then use their generic-drug manufacturing base to produce, distribute and sell copycats worldwide.”

Okonjo-Iweala’s unusual background, as the Financial Times puts it, might help to take the Geneva-based trade body in a different direction. During the campaign that culminated in her becoming the first African and female director-general (and also the first without a strong background in trade), Okonjo-Iweala highlighted her role as the chair of the international vaccine alliance Gavi.

A third way may be possible, the Financial Times says. Even if the WTO turns out not to be a main forum for discussions about issues including vaccine distribution, research, and finance, it can at least be a catalyst—especially since there’s a shortage of credible institutions to facilitate that debate. It’s a dialogue, the newspaper says, that may lead to some constructive action. 

But for that to happen, the WTO and its members need to be more transparent, the Financial Times says, as ambassadors hold discussions behind closed doors. “Open it up, let’s see who’s saying what,” the Trade Secrets article says. “You can’t host a conversation if you don’t let anyone outside listen.”

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The world in brief

Insights from across the planet, in ten bullets or fewer

  • As the virus morphs, scientific views change too. COVID-19 will not just stay with us as an endemic virus, but it will probably cause a significant burden of death and illness for years ahead, Reuters reports, citing an emerging consensus among scientists. The newswire cites interviews with eighteen experts who either track the pandemic or work to stem its impact. Recent data on variants from Brazil and South Africa has undercut optimism that vaccines could largely contain the virus.
  • QUOTE: “I still would want to wear a mask if there was a variant out there” even after getting a vaccine, Reuters cites Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden, as saying. “All you need is one little flick of a variant (sparking) another surge, and there goes your prediction” about when life gets back to normal.
  • AstraZeneca: progress in France, setbacks in India. France relaxed earlier curbs on the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine in older groups by allowing those over sixty-five years of age with existing health conditions to get the shot, France 24 reports. Hungary also plans to use the vaccine for people over sixty. But in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministers backed an Indian-made vaccine without late-stage efficacy data instead of the AstraZeneca shot, Reuters reports. 
  • QUOTE: Britain and the United States “had a much more pragmatic approach” to vaccination than Germany, says Hans-Martin von Gaudecker, a professor of economics at the University of Bonn, The Associated Press reports. “What normally makes German bureaucracy stolid and reliable becomes an obstacle in a crisis and costs lives.”
  • China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) sets its sights beyond the pandemic. Chinese leaders at this year’s meeting of the country’s ceremonial legislature are changing focus from COVID-19 to a long-term ambition to make the country a technology leader, The Associated Press reports. While the NPC, which begins on March 5, has no real power, China’s ruling Communist Party uses the gathering to showcase social and economic plans, the news service adds.  
  • The latest pandemic-fueled shortage: chips. The pandemic has caused a global shortage of computer chips and semiconductors, CNBC says in a video report. Not only are they a vital component in almost every electronic device we use, but they also power the factories that make those devices. Meanwhile, Quartz’s “COVID-19 living briefing” summarizes the pandemic’s impact on the global economy—from vaccines to airlines, gig work and delivery, European economies, trade, energy, and China’s economy.  
  • Signs that economic recovery may be around the corner: UK savings and factories in Italy and Spain. Household savings rose in the United Kingdom in January as lockdown curbs limited chances to spend, the Financial Times reports. Those reserves could help fuel a recovery after the economy reopens, it adds. In Italy and Spain, factories are boosting production to meet rising demand in a further sign of hope of economic recovery after COVID-19, although they also face increasing input costs and a growing shortage of raw materials, the newspaper reports separately. 
  • Asian countries crushed COVID-19 with strict protocols; but without vaccination, a rebound will slow. Early success in controlling COVID-19 has made it less urgent for some Asian countries to adopt speedy vaccination campaigns. The slow pace of vaccination, and the need to maintain sealed borders, could hamper the economic recovery of some countries in the region, The Wall Street Journal reports. 
  • No cheering, no singing, and now no foreign spectators at the Olympics? The new president of the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics hinted that there would be no foreign fans at this year’s games following talks with the International Olympic Committee, The Associated Press says, citing Japanese newspaper Mainichi. While the news isn’t confirmed publicly yet, we’ll know the committee’s final decision by the end of the month, said Japan’s Olympics minister, Tamayo Marukawa, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is considering a two-week extension to the Tokyo area’s state of emergency amid pressure on the medical system, the newswire says separately. 
  • Dolly Parton sings vaccine’s praises to encourage uptake. Parton sang an adapted version of her hit song “Jolene” while getting her COVID-19 vaccine in Nashville, Tennessee—and it made the news across the Atlantic on the BBC, in the Guardian newspaper, and beyond. The country music legend, age seventy-five, got a dose of her own medicine, as a one-million-dollar donation she made to Vanderbilt University Medical Center last April helped fund a research project related to the Moderna vaccine, NPR reports. 

The inside scoop

Insights from the Atlantic Council

New Atlanticist

Mar 1, 2021

CARICOM chairman: It’s time for a ‘reset’ in US-Caribbean relations

By Larry Luxner

The world’s inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is threatening the Caribbean’s economic recovery, and climate change is quickly becoming an “existential threat” to all low-lying island states, warns Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley.

Caribbean Climate Change & Climate Action

New Atlanticist

Feb 25, 2021

The world’s wealthy countries are at risk of a moral default

By Vasuki Shastry and Jeremy Mark

Rich countries must live up to their pledges by getting specific about the resources they’re making available to low-income countries—particularly in Africa—to deal with the economic downturn and rising debt. The meeting of G20 finance ministers on February 26 will provide an opportunity to fill in the policy blanks.

Africa Economy & Business

New Atlanticist

Feb 24, 2021

Josep Borrell outlines the EU’s priorities in a multipolar world

By Larry Luxner

“Today we’re in a multipolar world and [the EU will] have to look outwards because the problem is no longer among us; it’s among us and the rest of the world,” Josep Borrell told the Atlantic Council. The problems ahead: the pandemic, Russia, China, and more.

China European Union