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WHO Confronts Mutating COVID-19 Threat

With little known about whether the virus mutation will react differently to existing treatments, BioNTech’s CEO is optimistic.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Police officers wait at the Port of Dover on December 23, 2020 in Dover, United Kingdom.
Police officers wait at the Port of Dover on December 23, 2020 in Dover, United Kingdom. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Health Organization meets to discuss the new coronavirus variant, U.S. President Donald Trump pardons Blackwater contractors responsible for Iraq massacre, and Brexit talks continue.

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WHO Meets Today to Discuss COVID-19 Variant

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Health Organization meets to discuss the new coronavirus variant, U.S. President Donald Trump pardons Blackwater contractors responsible for Iraq massacre, and Brexit talks continue.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

WHO Meets Today to Discuss COVID-19 Variant

The World Health Organization meets today to discuss ways to confront the new coronavirus variant, first identified in the United Kingdom.

With much still unknown about the virus mutation, known as B.1.1.7, a WHO spokesperson said the meeting would help with information-sharing between countries.

The emergence of the coronavirus variant has already caused widespread disruption to European supply chains and led more than 40 countries to impose temporary bans on travel to and from the United Kingdom.

Truck drivers left stranded on both sides of the U.K.-French border have been offered a lifeline, as the British and French governments agreed to allow transit to continue as long as drivers tested negative for the virus. British transport minister Grant Shapps warned that the backlog would take “two or three days for things to be cleared.”

A year to forget. The border jams and coronavirus uncertainty cap a disastrous year for the British government, and as Harriet Williamson writes in Foreign Policy things are unlikely to improve quickly. “A ‘great year for Britain,’ in Johnson’s cocky words in January, has turned into an unprecedented disaster—and Johnson himself is left staring at the gravestone of what’s likely to be a short-lived premiership,” Williamson writes.

The variant and the vaccine. BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, the head of the company that partnered with Pfizer for the highly effective mRNA-based vaccine, is optimistic his company’s invention will withstand the problems of a new mutation. Sahin cautioned that it’s not yet known whether the vaccine will still work as effectively against the new variant, “but scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant.” Sahin added that more would be known in two weeks once preliminary research has concluded.

What We’re Following Today

Trump pardons convicted war criminals. U.S. President Donald Trump has issued a presidential pardon to four Blackwater security contractors convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians, including two children, at a traffic intersection in Baghdad in 2007. A court in 2014 found that the four men had opened fire indiscriminately with sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns, sentencing three to 30 year sentences and one to life in prison.

The pardons are similar to another issued to Eddie Gallagher, a former U.S. Navy Seal convicted of posing with the corpse of a teenage Islamic State fighter after he had killed him with a hunting knife (he was acquitted of murder at his trial).

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke out against the move. “Pardoning war criminals who murdered innocents—including children—goes directly against every value we claim to hold as Americans and gives a green light to war criminals and human rights abusers around the world.”

Brexit talks. As Brexit talks continue today, AFP reports that EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is ready to continue discussions into 2021, raising questions over whether the United Kingdom would agree to such an extension.

The issue of fishing rights remains a sticking point. Bloomberg reports that the British government is willing to come down from a demand that Europe reduces its fish catch in British waters by 60 percent by saying it would accept a one-third reduction. European negotiators have said a 25 percent reduction was the highest level they were comfortable with.

As negotiations drag on, FP columnist Edward Alden makes the case for why the world should be rooting for the European Union.

Israel heads for new elections. Israel will hold its fourth election in two years on March 23, as the short-lived coalition between Likud and Blue and White collapsed after the government failed to pass a budget. Benjamin Netanyahu will remain as prime minister until the elections, which take place after his corruption trial begins in February.

Armenia protests. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over a November cease-fire deal with Azerbaijan that ceded territory previously in ethnic Armenian hands. Supporters of the country’s opposition have set up tents in Yerevan’s main square, threatening to remain there until Pashinyan steps down.

Keep an Eye On

Russia in Colombia. Colombia appears to have expelled two Russian diplomats as local news reports say the men were accused of espionage against the energy and mineral industries in the country.

Juan Francisco Espinosa, the head of Colombia’s migration agency announced that the men had left on Dec. 8. “The reasons which motivated the exit are unconnected to the migration agency and are due to state decisions which I prefer not to reference,” Espinosa said.

Putin’s immunity.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a bill that would grant former presidents (and their families) a lifetime of immunity from prosecution and police questioning, updating a law that previously only granted immunity from crimes committed while in office.

The law was part of a package of constitutional changes approved by voters earlier this year that allowed for Putin to continue in office as far as 2036. Immunity can only be taken away from the president if Russia’s supreme and constitutional courts agree with a charge of treason or other high crimes.

Antarctica falls to COVID-19. 36 people stationed at the Chilean Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme in Antarctica have tested positive for COVID-19, a development that means the coronavirus has now been found on every continent. It is not yet known how the virus was contracted, although local media in Chile say contact tracing is underway.

Odds and Ends

France is to accelerate the citizenship applications of nearly 700 foreigners who worked on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration, said the move was part of “a long tradition that can be traced back to the French Revolution, which is to grant citizenship to the benefactors of the country.”

Although health care workers are part of the fast-tracked group, citizenship will also be extended to sanitation workers, housekeepers, and cashiers who worked through the pandemic, according to Marlène Schiappa, France’s junior minister for citizenship. Under French law, residents are permitted to hold dual citizenship and under European law, the successful applicants will automatically be allowed to live and work anywhere within the European Union.

That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to

Correction, Dec. 23, 2020: A previous version of this newsletter described Eddie Gallagher as a former U.S. Marine. Gallagher is a former U.S. Navy Seal.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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