Now you might think that we are finally getting somewhere when it comes to this pandemic thing. Perhaps we’re even getting towards the end of it. But I’m not so sure that the vaccines will save us and unlock the global economy.
Today, we investigate the awkward truths and unanswered questions which have me worried. And also have the markets worried, if the last week’s action is anything to go by.
The big issue is whether parts of the world can open up once a sufficient number of people are vaccinated. And the truth is, we don’t know yet. But the prospects are not looking good.
This subheading from a Bloomberg article might seem a bit silly, but bear with me: “Anecdotes signal surprising number of infections in vaccinated”.
Anecdotes? Really? This is supposed to be science by now…
And yet, if you listen to Jeff Bezos: “The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it.”
That pretty much sums up my take on the pandemic today. The measurement issues are either so messed up, or so inherently complex, that we just don’t know what we’re doing.
The anecdotes, meanwhile, are starting to add up. And they’re not matching the assumptions which politicians make when they promise to lift lockdowns and travel restrictions once vaccination rates are high enough.
The sorts of measurement issues which Bezos is probably thinking of in the quote above, in a very different context by the way, have been a bit of a problem during the pandemic, to put it mildly.
Remember this cracking headline from Yahoo Finance: “CDC urges labs to use COVID tests that can differentiate from flu”.
Or this one, which puts a fascinating twist on the first: “Coronavirus or the flu? ‘Impossible to distinguish’ between the two without testing, doctor says.”
So the test can’t distinguish between the flu and Covid, and the symptoms are indistinguishable too?
But that’s old news. The latest concerns are over whether the vaccines work as advertised. In other words, what really matters is whether they work well enough for us to lift lockdown measures.
That can happen in several ways. The vaccines can reduce the likelihood of people getting infected in the first place, reduce the likelihood they’ll pass on Covid, or reduce the severity of the symptoms.
One by one, all of those narratives have been falling apart.
The vaccines might be wonderful, but if they’re not wonderful enough to end lockdowns, Covid-19 will continue to cause real problems for economies and financial markets, and it will cost more lives.
That’s why the Bloomberg headline which sits above subhead I mentioned above reads like this: “The Vaccinated Are Worried and Scientists Don’t Have Answers”.
Scientists without answers? Isn’t that a conspiracy theory?
And why are the vaccinated people the ones worrying?
Bloomberg explains: “Though it is evident vaccination still provides powerful protection against the virus, there’s growing concern that vaccinated people may be more vulnerable to serious illness than previously thought.”
“Previously thought” by whom?
Previously thought by politicians promising to end lockdowns and other restrictions once vaccinations reach some threshold, that is.
In Israel, deaths and hospitalisations are creeping up, just as we’d settled on the idea that at least deaths and hospitalisations aren’t rising because of vaccines…
Rice University has shifted back to online classes after a surge in Covid cases on campus. What is its vaccination rate according to The New York Times? 98.5% of students.
I’m sure you’ve spotted plenty of similar anecdotes too. Vaccinations are not the silver bullet, the key to unlocking lockdowns or any other solution metaphor you’ve heard a politician use.
But don’t worry, the scientists are on the case. The United States’ Centers for Disease Control admitted its major discovery so far in the pandemic is… that it’s hard to figure out what it knows so far:
“We have to be humble about what we do know and what we don’t know,” said Tom Frieden, a former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the head of the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. “There are a few things we can say definitively. One is that this is a hard question to address.”
Well, that’s helpful! How long has the pandemic been going for? How long have we had the vaccines?
Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, was even less helpful: “We all know someone who has had [a breakthrough infection]. But we don’t have great clinical data.”
You might think having good clinical data on the results of the vaccines is a good idea generally. But we don’t have it, apparently…
Here’s my favourite bit of the Bloomberg article, which examined the data we do have, with emphasis added:
One of the best known outbreaks among vaccinated people occurred in the small beach town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, as thousands of vaccinated and unvaccinated alike gathered on dance floors and at house parties over the Fourth of July weekend to celebrate the holiday — and what seemed like a turning point in the pandemic. About three-fourths of the 469 infections were among vaccinated people.
Authors of a CDC case study said this might mean that they were just as likely to transmit Covid-19 as the unvaccinated. Even so, they cautioned, as more people are vaccinated, it’s natural that they would also account for a larger share of Covid-19 infections and this one study was not sufficient to draw any conclusions. The incident prompted the CDC to reverse a recommendation it had issued just a few weeks earlier and once again urge the vaccinated to mask up in certain settings.
Yes, a study about a Fourth of July party – which made clear that it’s not a basis for reaching conclusions – was used to determine national policy.
All of this is especially interesting from a particular perspective – mine.
You see, I’m trying to get to a place called Queensland. It is a tropical paradise that was voted as the best place in the world to live by… my parents and now my wife.
The trouble is that Queensland has had a total of seven Covid deaths, most of which were back in April 2020, and about 2,000 cases in total. That’s tiny.
These small numbers are thanks to Queensland’s rather strict border measures. Recently, a man tried to inspire people to storm that border by riding towards it on an unsaddled horse. That might seem unhinged, but it would appear that Queensland would rather let children die than allow them across the border for urgent medical care.
So, what are the exceptions to the border restrictions? Twelve National Rugby League teams have been shifted into the state for at least a month. With most of Australia in lockdown, the circuses continue.
But here’s the thing. Queensland has gone from being an island of Covid free measures to a prison of its own success. Covid is ravaging Sydney and Melbourne, despite very strict lockdowns. One local government recently killed 15 dogs, including 10 puppies, to stop workers from another shelter from travelling to pick them up!
Anyway, when the Australian prime minister announced the plan to open up the nation once a certain level of vaccination had been reached, the Queensland deputy premier took just a few days to come out and say otherwise.
The agreement with the federal government came before cases in other parts of Australia had exploded, the deputy premier said. And, given all that anecdotal evidence we’re seeing in places like Iceland, Israel and Rice University… Queensland may not open up when vaccinations hit the key level.
But why not?
If the vaccines work, Queensland can open up. If they don’t, we’re not nearing the end of the pandemic because of vaccines. As the Israelis and Icelanders have found out the hard way.
Sir Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, explained that the goal of herd immunity via vaccination is now “mythical”:
I think we are in a situation here with this current variant where herd immunity is not a possibility because it still infects vaccinated individuals.
And that does mean that anyone who’s still unvaccinated, at some point, will meet the virus. That might not be this month or next month, it might be next year, but at some point they will meet the virus and we don’t have anything that will stop that transmission.
Tell that to the world’s politicians and have them explain it to their locked down populations.
Here’s what makes Queensland so interesting. If the state does open up, it’ll be one of the very few places where Covid has free rein on a vaccinated population which has not yet been struck by Covid.
If you ask me, we’d find out that the vaccines don’t work as well as advertised on a population that has not already faced a few waves of Covid – or, more specifically, a few waves of Covid that kill those most susceptible.
But what do you think?
Or, better yet, what would you do if you were the premier of Queensland?
Would you open up under the federal government’s plan, once vaccination rates are high enough? Or would you keep the border closed and leave children seeking medical care to their fate on the other side of the border?
Remember, your political career depends on it…
If they do open the border, I’ll let you know what happens, because I’ll probably finally get into Queensland just as the chaos there kicks off…
Oh, and don’t forget, we’re always one variant away from complete lockdowns once more…
Editor, Fortune & Freedom
PS And another question to ponder: what will stop the enormous and continuing flood of cash into the global stock market we’ve seen this year? Amid the pandemic pandemonium, investors have poured 34 times more cash into stocks this year than the annual average going back 25 years. Almost $4 billion in cash a day is pouring into stocks per day.
Who is buying, why, and how might this “Capital Tsunami” end? That’s what Boaz Shoshan and John Butler will be investigating in tomorrow’s episode of Southbank Live, broadcast live here on YouTube at 10am. Don’t miss it!