May 7, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The advisory committee that will hear evidence about the safety and effectiveness of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds will be Wednesday, May 12. It looked like it could happen this week, but don’t read into the new date as concerning news.

Here is the meeting agenda and here is the webcast link (anyone can watch).

Pfizer has provided a rough timeline for what it hopes is next.

(Pfizer)

By the end of May, the company hopes to apply for full approval — not just Emergency Use Approval. If all goes well, it may ask for approval to distribute the vaccine to infants.

By the way, you will soon be seeing some new public service announcements promoting COVID-19 vaccines aimed at young people. Some of them involve Sesame Street characters and feature the letter U, as in “I’ll be seeing U.”

(Screenshot, Sesame Street)

Another version will feature Willie Nelson singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” and feature scenes from the MLB, NASCAR, NFL, WNBA and more sports leagues.

And just to be sure everyone gets the message, some local governments are planning to offer free beer, flowers and rounds at the local gun range if you get the vaccine.

Gallup finds majority of Americans favor proof of COVID-19 vaccine to fly or attend large events

This new polling from Gallup surprises me.

The poll says:

Majorities of Americans favor requiring proof of vaccination to travel by airplane or attend events with large crowds. Fewer support certification to go to one’s workplace, stay in a hotel or dine indoors at a restaurant.

  • 57% support requiring vaccination proof to travel by airplane
  • 55% back vaccination substantiation to attend events with large crowds
  • Vaccinated adults, Democrats, largely support proof for all activities

Notice in the chart below how few people who have not been vaccinated and do not plan to be favor so-called vaccine passports.

(Gallup)

(Gallup)

The polling shows that people who identify as Democrats are significantly more likely to be open to proof of vaccination than those who identify as Republicans.

The survey included “3,731 adults, aged 18 and older, who are members of the Gallup Panel. Gallup uses probability-based, random sampling methods to recruit its Panel members.”

I have seen polling from Canada where the idea of vaccine passports is a lot more popular. Same for Brits.

This Gallup survey tracks pretty closely with other polling from the pharmaceutical industry and some other private polling.

The Biden administration has said it has no plans of introducing any such “passport” idea and the governors of Texas, Mississippi and Florida have all banned their states from requiring proof of vaccination.

Why lifting COVID-19 vaccine patent protections is, and isn’t, a big deal

This week, President Joe Biden said he supports lifting patent protections for the COVID-19 vaccines. The White House says it would make it easier for other companies to produce vaccines around the world. 

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said, “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.” She also inserted a dose of reality and said that at the World Trade Organization, “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

In other words, what may seem like an important decision that could get vaccines flowing quickly is not that at all. But it is an important issue for both now and the future.

All 164 members of the WTO would have to agree to the consensus. And before this week, the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Japan have blocked efforts, brought by India and South Africa, to make it legal for manufactures to produce generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.

The BBC explains that just waving patents might do little or nothing to increase vaccine production:

The key argument from vaccine producers and their home countries is that waiving patents alone wouldn’t solve much. It would, they say, be like handing out a recipe without the ingredients or instructions.

The patent covers the bare bones of the blueprint but not the precise production process. That’s crucial here. Vaccines of the mRNA type — such as Pfizer and Moderna — are a new breed and only a small number of people understand how to make them.

Critics say intellectual property ownership is not the bottleneck for vaccines. They say a better solution would be for the vaccines to be manufactured by the companies that developed them and ship the drugs internationally.

As CNBC points out:

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America expressed pointed opposition to the Biden administration’s support for waiving IP protections. The trade group’s members include vaccine makers such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

Critics have argued that patents on vaccines and other protections are not the central obstacle to producing more vaccines for the nations that need them most. Some also suggest such agreements could harm companies’ incentives to innovate during future pandemics.

“This is a huge misstep by the Biden Administration that will do nothing to increase vaccine distribution and will endorse China’s ability to piggyback on U.S. innovation to further its vaccine diplomacy aims,” Clete Willems, a former attorney at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said of the decision.

“A solution more in line with the Administration’s stated objectives of improving U.S. competitiveness and keeping jobs in America would be to produce and export vaccines from the United States,” said Willems, who worked under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Pfizer reported a revenue of $3.5 billion from its vaccine in the first part of 2021.

A Washington Post editorial says lifting patent protections is “more slogan than solution.” The column asked whether there would be safety and quality assurance if the patents are free for anybody to use. It is more than a lofty question. If a contaminated vaccine started circulating, not only would it harm the patients, it could undercut confidence in vaccines globally.

The Post’s editorial also raises the issue of whether negating patents would be a disincentive for drug companies to move as quickly as Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson did to produce hundreds of millions of safe and effective doses in months.

But then again, the U.S. government did spend $10 billion to help develop the drugs, which raised the philosophical if not the legal issue of whether at least some of the intellectual property should belong to the people who paid for it. A group called People’s Vaccine, which has partnerships with many well-known international aid groups including Oxfam and Amnesty International, made a video saying COVID-19 vaccines should not “be profit machines.”

WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tweeted:

What happens now?

Science journal Nature includes an explanation of what happens next:

“It’s a 1-2-3,” explains Rachel Cohen, the US director for the non-profit organization Drugs and Neglected Diseases initiative, based in New York City. “First we need to remove patent obstacles, second we need to transfer the knowledge on how to make them, and step three is a massive investment in manufacturing capacity.”

And at the moment step one is far from complete. The World Trade Organization will only negotiate the details of which patents to adjust after all its member countries agree on some sort of waiver. Health policy analysts speculate that other countries will follow in the footsteps of the United States.

If a consensus is reached, South Africa and India have proposed waivers on patents around vaccines, as well as COVID-19-related medical devices, drugs and diagnostic technologies. So far, Tai’s statement only mentions vaccines.

This kind of waiving of patent rights has happened before. In 2003, WTO members agreed to waive patent rights and allow poorer countries to import generic treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. In that case, companies producing the generic drugs could do so primarily for their own domestic market. It was not intended to be blanket permission to produce the drugs and then sell them around the world.

By the way, almost as quickly as the Biden administration announced it would support lifting patent protections for the COVID-19 vaccines, the stock prices for the vaccine-producing companies dropped like a rock.

A warning for us all: The most vaccinated nation installs new restrictions as COVID-19 reemerges

Pedestrians wear masks as they walk on a street in the capital Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Salim Ally)

You may not even know where Seychelles is — hint: the western Indian Ocean islands — but it is the most vaccinated country in the world. But now, even there, the government has closed schools and canceled sporting activities for two weeks as infections surge. 60% of the adult population there has been vaccinated. Still, Bloomberg says, the government is concerned about a new outbreak:

The measures, which include bans on the intermingling of households and the early closure of bars, come even as the country has fully vaccinated more than 60% of its adult population with two doses of coronavirus vaccines. The curbs are similar to those last imposed at the end of 2020.

“Despite of all the exceptional efforts we are making, the Covid-19 situation in our country is critical right now with many daily cases reported last week,” Peggy Vidot, the nation’s health minister, said at a press conference Tuesday.

The island nation of around 98,000 people used vaccines from China long before most of the rest of the world had shots. It has also used some vaccines from AstraZeneca.

This development in a highly vaccinated country may be a good time to remind ourselves that in a pandemic, the world population is in this together. Global cases climbed above 154 million yesterday after nine straight weeks of rising cases. 93,000 people died of COVID-19 last week in the seventh week in a row of increases — nearly two straight months — and it will rise more next week.

India, of course, is a big reason for the increase. But there are many trouble spots. Health experts are increasingly concerned that even though Israel is highly vaccinated, Palestinians are not. Egypt announced that all cafes, malls and restaurants will be closed beginning at 9 p.m. to contain what Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly called a “third wave.”

And Canada is at a peak again.

(Screenshot, Google)

Here in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered some sobering news even while state after state announced plans to restore businesses to their full capacity. The CDC said COVID-19 cases will likely surge again in the U.S., peaking in May before sharply declining by July.

For the record, the nation of Bhutan has the second-highest vaccination record. Bhutan estimates 96% of its adults have been vaccinated to date. Israel is third.

A rocket may come crashing to Earth this weekend, but (gulp) don’t worry

Here is something to take your mind off the pandemic this weekend. The U.S. Space Command is tracking a 22-ton Chinese rocket that may come into the Earth’s orbit this weekend. Whatever doesn’t burn up on reentry may hit Earth. You can follow the hashtag here.

SpaceNews says:

It will be one of the largest instances of uncontrolled reentry of a spacecraft and could potentially land on an inhabited area.

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.

The most likely event will see any debris surviving the intense heat of reentry falling into the oceans or uninhabited areas, but the risk remains of damage to people or property.

In looking into this, I was surprised to read:

Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Programme Office for the European Space Agency, says from their experience, there is an average amount of mass of about 100 tons re-entering in an uncontrolled way per year. “This relates to about 50-60 individual events per year.”

I was a reporter in Kentucky in 1979 when Skylab came tumbling back to earth. People were a little freaked about it. Our newsroom got a call that a farmer a couple of counties over had recovered a piece of Skylab that landed on his farm. Lucky for him, it was a scorched piece of steel that had the Skylab logo still visible on it. Except that it was a complete fake. Some pieces fell on Australia but none on Kentucky. I am just saying, be skeptical.

To summarize, this is probably not going to hit you. But if it looks like it might, try to get some good video. Some poor journalist working the weekend shift will appreciate it.

The way we work now

I want to give a big shout-out to the folks at KNBN in Rapid City, South Dakota. When the weather computer system died this week, the meteorologist broke out a whiteboard and some markers and delivered a clear and professional weathercast. In fact, I found that I understood it better than a lot of weathercasts that are driven more by tech than by content.


But no, this should not be an inspiration to owners that, “Hey, we could save money on software.” It is interesting, though, what happens when the meteorologist slows down and talks more like a teacher than a TV person.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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