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On The Search For Covid-19 Vaccines, And Our Media Woes

The government always ran the risk that if its lockdown succeeded in saving lives, it would be open to the criticism that it cried wolf. Success = overkill. Well, this has to be one of the downsides of being an island nation, and effectively remote from a global reality where tens of thousands of people are dying from this virus. In mid-March, the modelling predicted that the same could happen here, if strict measures to suppress the virus were not taken. Arguably, we should now be celebrating the fact that the lockdown has worked, and that we’ve got to this crossroads point with relatively little loss of life.

The point being…any steps to Level Three will need to be gradual, and tentative. Only a few days ago, National Party and Act politicians were urging us to follow the example of Australia. Well, Aussie PM Scott Morrison has just extended their lockdown for another four weeks – thereby making their extension as long as our entire lockdown. Also, the signs are that their softer lockdown has caused just as much disruption to the Australian economy – in job losses, shutdowns, unemployment, GDP contraction etc - as our harder lockdown has done here, and for fewer gains in public health. Elsewhere… France, the UK and New York are also extending their lockdowns.

Sure, we can join in the centre right-wing quibbling about how this or that rule might affect this or that type of retailer at Level Three. Yet the virus is still out there. All logic would suggest that as more people work and socialise together at Level Three, infections will increase. Those infections will need to be carefully monitored and managed via an effective regime of testing, tracing and isolation, or else the virus will roar into life and harm very large numbers of New Zealanders. And yes, that would be really, really bad for the economy.

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Right now there are a few genuine signals within the political noise being generated by the centre-right. Clearly, there will be problems at Level Three if teachers were expected to teach and babysit the under 14s on school grounds, while simultaneously trying to teach the stay-at-home kids online. The education system will struggle to cope with Level Three optional attendance, at and below year 10. On Monday, the government should (arguably) reverse direction and exclude this sector of the education system from the Level Three relaxations for a while longer. Teachers have just set up online teaching. It seems too soon to turn around and ask them to partially dispense with it at junior level. Here’s how New South Wales is tackling the same problem.

Overall though, there are excellent reasons why Level Three envisages only a limited amount of economic activity. At this point – as Professor Shaun Hendy has argued - we don’t yet have a robust enough contact tracing regime in place, nationwide. That’s a real worry. Surely, we need certainty that our testing and tracing regime would be able to cope with a larger uptick in infections, if we’re going to prevent Level Three’s modest infection increases from spinning out of control.

The Search For Vaccines

At base, the range of suppression/mitigation measures are about minimising the socio-economic damage, until a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available. In the US alone there are reportedly 71 separate vaccine trials underway, amid some welcome signs of co-operation. Pfizer has allied with BioNTech for one vaccine effort, and Johnson &Johnson last week announced a $1 billion vaccine team-up with the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA). Similarly, the pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi have just announced that they’re joining forces in the search for a vaccine. Forgive the jargon :

The companies have already signed a letter of intent and will share each other's technology for the potential shot. Sanofi its chipping in an S-protein COVID-19 antigen based on recombinant DNA tech, while GSK is contributing its “proven pandemic adjuvant technology," according to a release.

Adjuvants allow vaccines to protect recipients with less vaccine protein per dose, meaning manufacturers can make more doses to ultimately protect more people. That's a critical factor during an evolving pandemic, where a successful vaccine would need to be deployed quickly and widely.

Inevitably, there will be a global scramble for access to any successful Covid-19 vaccine, if and when it is found. To ensure we don’t get lost in the crush of demand - and that any such vaccine is speedily available to New Zealanders - there is pressure for the government to fund a Covid-19 vaccine research programme here.

Yet….it is widely taken for granted that such efforts will be successful within 12 to 18 months. (Some optimists are even citing delivery by next March.) Lets all hope so. But it is worth keeping in mind that we still don’t have a vaccine yet for HIV, nearly 40 years down the track. Fortunately, the drug companies can build on the vaccine research already carried out (also so far, in vain) to find a vaccine for previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS. Maybe those searches fizzled out only because the epidemics associated with them declined. But maybe…they also reflect the possibility that this search for a Covid-19 vaccine isn’t a sure thing. We all have to hope that the science is up to the job. If it is, we may even look more kindly upon Big Pharma in future. 

Forms of Vaccine

There are many types of vaccine, as this Youtube video from Nate Silver’s 538 website cogently explains.


Classically, vaccines work by introducing a part of or a weakened form of, the disease in question, sufficient to “train” the body to produce the antibodies that provide immunity. The vaccine doesn’t persist in the body, but the antibodies do and – cross fingers – these antibodies will then be sufficient to protect the body against the threat of subsequent infection, or against the “re-animation” of the disease if and when the body ever falls into a more vulnerable state.

One of the early concerns about Covid-19 is that since some people who get the disease suffer only a mild version of it, the antibodies they produce are at a similarly low level – such that this may not offer total protection against a subsequent infection. That’s a complicating factor in the development of reliable antibody testing that would – hopefully – allow us to increase the numbers of previously infected (and now immune) workers able to get the economy ticking over again. The risk is that few symptoms may generate only a low level of future immunity. That’s why antibody testing remains a work in progress.

Much of the US vaccine research is not working with a weakened form of the virus – instead, it is building on the approach taken with SARS and MERS, and is taking a piece of Covid-19’s genetic code to trigger and target antibody reactions. This work should be distinguished from the work on Covid-19 antiviral treatments, which seek to minimise the impact of the virus, once infection has occurred. Remdesivir still looks like the most promising candidate here as this report ( from only hours ago) suggests :

A Chicago hospital treating severe Covid-19 patients with Gilead Sciences’ antiviral medicine remdesivir in a closely watched clinical trial is seeing rapid recoveries in fever and respiratory symptoms, with nearly all patients discharged in less than a week….

Remdesivir was one of the first medicines identified as having the potential to impact SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, in lab tests. The entire world has been waiting for results from Gilead’s clinical trials, and positive results would likely lead to fast approvals by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies. If safe and effective, it could become the first approved treatment against the disease.

Meanwhile… the research news on President Donald Trump’s favoured treatment option (hydroxychloroquine) continues to be bad. Also, the desperate spike that Trump has driven in its popularity is creating shortages of the drug for the patients ( eg with lupus, or arthritis) who actually need it, while (reportedly) harming people who may not need it. All of this will be on the mind of the government over the weekend, as it mulls over Monday’s Cabinet decision as to how, and when New Zealand emerges from the Level Four lockdown.

Media woes, revisited

Given its Fourth Estate role you can make a case that the media deserves a special rescue mission. The difficulty, as Finance Minister Grant Robertson has indicated, is that the media suffers from some serious pre-existing conditions. It has therefore been hard to separate out the economic damage being wrought by the virus, as opposed to the media’s chronic and underlying problems. For years, it has failed to address them by any means other than reducing capacity and throwing people overboard. The proposed NZME/Fairfax merger would have resulted in further rounds of both. At best, it would only have bought a bit more time.

Yes, Covid-19 has killed advertising. There isn’t much taste for luxuries – it looks gross to promote them during a pandemic – and the essentials of life don’t need to be promoted. Arguably though, Covid-19 has merely delivered the coup de grace to an old, ad-based revenue model that was already dying on its feet. For big media companies to merit a rescue package from the taxpayer…first they should be required to spell out how they plan to operate (a) in a world where ad revenue isn’t paying many of the bills anymore, and (b) after the government’s wage subsidies have run out.

On the evidence, the future will entail a smaller, more tightly targeted media industry, and one far more dependent on reader/viewer subscriptions. Generalist messaging is going to become the exclusive realm of state broadcasting – while otherwise, people subscribe to the particular journalists and news outlets they believe are worth sustaining. To that end, the government’s media assistance could be in the form of an annual voucher mailed out to all New Zealanders, and payable to whoever/whatever journalism they see fit.

In the meantime, the rescue packages are likely to provide only a temporary fix. As taxpayers, should we pump money into NZME, Mediaworks and Stuff to keep them upright for a wee bit longer, or should we put the money to work in RNZ and within the likes of Newsroom, the Spinoff and (ahem) Scoop?

In Australia, the Morrison government has just pumped $50 million into regional news, to help regional and community reporting to stay alive. Reportedly, our government has been in talks with this country’s tottering media empires, and some forms of support packages are about to be announced. Chances are though, government support will be mainly about shoring up the status quo until the threat from the virus abates - at which point the media dinosaurs can be allowed to expire, from natural causes.

Footnote : Old news now, but Bauer Media was the first test case of Covid-19 being used as an excuse to close down operations already on the ropes. Finally, the Listener went the way of other once-beloved general interest magazines worldwide, like the Bulletin in Australia (R.I.P 2008) and the Saturday Evening Post in the US (R.I.P 1969.)

It was the best outcome available. Having the government buy Bauer’s titles would have been corporate welfare, and would have enabled them (at taxpayer expense) to dodge the redundancy obligations that in some executive positions seemed likely to reach comfortably into six figures. Hey, if media nationalisation is to be taken as the sign of progressive virtue – why not urge the government to buy Stuff and the NZ Herald and be done with it?

For the record, if the government had bought Bauer’s titles at the time….this would also have entrenched the executives largely responsible for their plight. Still, if anyone out there remains hellbent on buying the Listener, I suggest waiting (a) until Bauer has fully met its obligations to staff and (b) until the masthead value of the defunct Listener title has declined. Sure, the magazine has a great archive - but in the current climate that monetary value is only theoretical. (Previous attempts in the early 1990s to monetise the archive were not exactly a roaring success.)

Some commentators (eg Matthew Hooton) have made the facile argument that the Listener was viable because of its ratio of locked-in subscriptions to over-the counter sales. In reality, that ratio was a mixed blessing. The fact it sold so few copies on newsstands was actually a sign of its irrelevance. More to the point, the boomers who subscribed to the Listener around Christmastime each year (for themselves, or as a gift to relatives) were wedded to having a printed copy in the letterbox and in their hands, if only to do the crossword. Yet the crippling costs (beside labour) in producing the Listener were largely to do with printing it and distributing it nationwide, and by mail.

This is usefully indicative of the direction any media rescue package needs to follow. By and large, boomers seem to be relatively uncomfortable with consuming any content online that isn’t a TV series, or a film. Yet surely, any reborn Listener could only survive (without an eternal government subsidy) if it became solely a digital publication. So…first, the Listener masthead would need to be available at a reasonable price, and then the content would have to ditch its recent fixations on the social anxieties and lifestyle choices of the boomer generation.

Arguably, fresh and radical content more in line with its liberal traditions might attract a younger readership willing to dispense with the printing and distribution costs that its top-heavy proportion of ageing subscribers had so ruinously demanded. But hey…why try so hard and expensively to square that circle, when the likes of the Spinoff, Newsroom and (ahem) Werewolf already exist?

© Scoop Media

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