The Pandemic, One Year On
The “Pandemic Prophet” Laurie Garrett reflects on a year like no other and what she’s looking at next.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared a coronavirus pandemic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his first visit to the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil’s Lula makes first political remarks since his corruption case was thrown out.
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The Prophet of the Pandemic
Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
The past year has revealed harsh truths about how different countries see the link between their societies and their economies, the fragility of the world’s health infrastructure, and the cutthroat nature of global competition now that vaccines have become available.
Not many people saw this coming, but some did. Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer—dubbed “the prophet of this pandemic” by the New York Times—is familiar to regular Foreign Policy readers. Her September 2019 piece warning how ill-prepared the world was for a global pandemic makes for eerie reading today.
I spoke with Garrett about her reflections on the past year and what she is worried about now. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: Take us back to pre-pandemic times. Why did you think something like this was coming?
Laurie Garrett: I was convinced that we were looking at, at a minimum, a SARS phenomenon, similar to 2003, right around Christmas in 2019. I was monitoring what was coming out of China, and it looked to me like there was already a cover-up, very similar to what I had been through in 2003 because I was in China and I traveled all over the country during the SARS epidemic, so I had a pretty good idea of what the Chinese playbook looked like. I was already irate—livid—by the second week of January.
It was very obvious to me that the Chinese were putting out false data regarding case numbers and deaths. It was also obvious to me that Li Wenliang and other courageous Chinese physicians who were telling the truth were being penalized or locked up and that Chinese journalists who were brave enough to try to tell the truth were already facing penalties or disappearing. And that none of the international players were really doing very much, and it was just unbelievably frustrating.
And I was trying to put out the warnings, and I got attacked. I had death threats. I had people tell me that I was a fearmonger and that somebody should lock me up. The general mood was really horrible.
FP: Fast forward to today and vaccines have made the mood a lot more positive. Do you share that positivity?
LG: Well, we’ve had more than 200 vaccines in development and so far, all but two of them are still in the pipeline. That’s amazing.
And of the ones that have come forward for actual approvals, two of them are home runs. That’s incredible.
And a lot of it has to do with things the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had been funding and working on for many years. This is all built on the shoulders of Ebola epidemics because the platforms for Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna were all first put to use trying to come up with a vaccine for Ebola.
Now we have a whole new set of templates for future epidemics, a whole new approach—and it’s an approach that goes much faster.
FP: Over the course of the past year, what surprised you the most?
LG: I was always suspicious of the Trump administration, but I never imagined deliberate sabotage by the president of the United States; that was just unfathomable. I was involved in the movie Contagion, and when we would do our brainstorming and imagine plot possibilities, we never ever imagined that the worst performance would come from the United States of America. We never imagined that there would be a president who didn’t want the epidemic to be controlled. That would have been a plot twist that even the crazies in Hollywood would not have backed.
FP: The initial response has been heavily criticized, but does the Trump administration not deserve some credit for its Operation Warp Speed vaccine initiative?
LG: Well, it’s complicated—because as I said, the whole approach to vaccine development preceded Trump; it was all happening before him.
Here’s what I would give them credit for: They gave a lot of money to the companies to get them to accelerate what they were doing. But the basic idea of what to do, how to make these vaccines, they already all knew that. I don’t think that the Trump administration’s Warp Speed is why we have a vaccine. I think it hastened it.
I mean, with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, both CEOs have told stories about Jan. 24, 2020—the day that the Chinese released the genome sequence. They started making a vaccine that day. So it isn’t as if they needed to be prodded into it.
FP: What are you looking at next? What worries you?
LG: I’m looking at the variants and following them closely, and I’m most worried about Brazil. They could very well have an epidemic that extends into next year.
And now that Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is out of prison and all charges are dropped, they’re going to go into elections, and it will be every bit as divisive as what we’ve just been through in the United States. I mean, this could be catastrophic, and at least two mutant strains have come out of Brazil so far. It could be the mixing cauldron for the evolution of this virus.
FP: We’ve seen some countries move very quickly in vaccinating their populations— Israel and the United Kingdom in particular. Is there something to be learned there?
LG: Well, the Israeli experience is really important to keep an eye on because there are two big things there.
First, they vaccinated a larger percentage of their citizens than other countries. We can look to them to figure out whether vaccination results in a decrease in transmission.
This is a point that a lot of people have missed. Part of rushing to get these vaccines out has been that the studies were not designed to test whether or not the vaccine successfully blocked transmission; that would have required another year or two of study.
So when they say 95 percent efficacy, they’re not talking about protection; they’re talking about a 95 percent blockage of progression to serious disease.
So, we know the vaccines are really good at protecting the individual, but we don’t yet know if they’re good at protecting societies. That’s why we’re all paying a lot of attention to Israel. We need to see whether this succeeds in stopping the spread.
What We’re Following Today
Netanyahu to UAE. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his first official trip to the United Arab Emirates today, with less than two weeks to go before Israel’s election. According to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu will meet with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for roughly two hours at Abu Dhabi’s airport. Initial reports suggested Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would also join the meeting, although Saudi officials have denied it.
Ivory Coast PM dies. Ivory Coast Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko died in a German hospital following a battle with cancer, the Ivory Coast’s government reported on Wednesday. Bakayoko had just been reelected to his parliamentary seat in Saturday’s election, receiving 90 percent of the vote in his district. President Alassane Ouattara named Patrick Achi, his chief of staff, to the position of interim prime minister on Monday, citing Bakayoko’s ill health. Bakayoko is the second Ivorian prime minister to die in office in the past year after Amadou Gon Coulibaly succumbed to heart problems last July.
Keep an Eye On
Brazil’s presidential race. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made a return to the political arena on Wednesday when he sharply criticized President Jair Bolsonaro for his “imbecile decisions.”
“This country has no government. This country doesn’t take care of the economy, of job creation, wages, health care, the environment, education, young people,” Lula said at a press conference. Responding to the comments on CNN Brazil, Bolsonaro seemed unfazed. “He is rambling. He does not know what he is talking about,” Bolsonaro said.
Magufuli’s whereabouts. It has been 12 days since Tanzanian President John Magufuli has been seen in public, leading to speculation that the leader may be seriously ill. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu claims that Magufuli is currently in a hospital in Kenya receiving treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, although the assertion has not been verified.
The Kenyan newspaper the Nation reported on Wednesday that an unnamed African leader had been admitted to a hospital in Nairobi. Magufuli has repeatedly played down the dangers of COVID-19, and the country has not submitted virus data to the World Health Organization since May 2020.
U.S.-China relations. The Biden administration is to make its first high-level in-person contact with Chinese officials on March 18 in Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet with Yang Jiechi, the director of China’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Odds and Ends
Trouble is brewing before the annual Eurovision Song Contest as Belarus’s entry has raised concerns that the song breaks rules against political statements in the competition.
Galasy ZMesta, the band chosen by the Belarusian state broadcaster to compete in this year’s contest, has already appeared at rallies in support of President Alexander Lukashenko. But it’s the song’s lyrics that have caused the most upset.
The song, “Ya Nauchu Tebya” (“I’ll Teach You”), features lyrics that appear to mock anti-Lukashenko protests that have been going on for months. The line, “I’ll teach you how to dance to the tune. I’ll teach you to peck the bait. I will teach you to walk the line,” has particularly angered opponents.
An online petition begun by Eurovision fans to remove the band from the competition has so far gained 2,000 signatures.
That’s it for today.