The Race to Hack the Vaccine
September 9, 2020
The Good News
- Planting City Trees With a New Focus on Equity (Bloomberg). Conquering two serious problems with one seed.
- Who doesn’t love a good whale redemption story? Tahlequah, the endangered orca whale that carried her dead calf with her for 17 days in August 2018, gave birth to a healthy calf today (Seattle Times)
“You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.”
Hacking the Vaccine
(Panida Wijitpanya via Getty Images)
The Cold War: Part Deux. Trailer: The race for a coronavirus vaccine is hot and heavy. Hacker teams from China and Russia have been identified — every day they test weaknesses in our systems. They are not alone. When it comes to a vaccine, its spy versus spy. Spoiler alert: Every major intelligence service around the globe is trying to find out what everyone else is up to. Already playing at a drug manufacturer or university research lab near you.
The first Cold War’s competition to achieve dominance in outer space occurred over decades, during which the Soviet Union and America relied on their spy agencies to catch up when the other seemed likely to achieve a milestone. In today’s urgent race to develop a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19, the timeline is sharply compressed. US intelligence officials have been tracking China’s efforts to steal vaccine information since early February, just as the virus was gaining a foothold in America. But the intelligence wars have intensified as China and Russia, along with other adversaries like Iran, have expanded their efforts to steal American work at both pharmaceutical companies and research institutes.
The cutting edge research being done at the University of North Carolina, in particular, has been the focus of Chinese digital reconnaissance. Others have also been beset, and some networks possibly breached. Washington has taken steps to protect the universities and corporations doing the most advanced work. In July, the State Department closed China’s embassy in Houston, and the Justice Department indicted two Chinese hackers of targeting American biotechnology companies developing COVID-19 vaccines: Gilead Sciences, Novavax, and Moderna.
NATO intelligence — normally concerned with the movement of Russian tanks and terrorist cells — has expanded to scrutinize Kremlin efforts to steal vaccine research. Both Russia and China have been spreading disinformation about the virus, its origins, and the American response. The Kremlin’s intelligence services especially, with their long record of fomenting divisions in American society, are working to escalate the anti-vaccine movement in the West. Spying allegations could be useful in giving its narrative greater traction.
A Second Term Surprise?
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 for the purpose of providing collective security against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. For the past 71 years, NATO has worked to guarantee the freedom and security of its 30 member nations through political and military means. It is committed to democratic values and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
- However, if diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis management operations. The United States is a vital member of NATO, and the greatest beneficiary of a US exit from the alliance would be Russia. Recent accounts by former senior national security officials in the Trump administration — verifying the president’s wish to withdraw the US from the alliance — have contributed to growing unease on Capitol Hill and across Europe.
- Trump was reportedly talked out of quitting the pact more than once in his first term; a second term would give him a much better chance to do so. According to many, if Trump is reelected, and feels that people have thereby endorsed his policies, it is almost certain he will move to withdraw the US from NATO. These former officials warn that such a move would be one of the most monumental global strategic shifts in generations, and a major victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin. (NYT)
- The American Prisoner in Russia Trapped Between Putin and Trump (New Yorker)
- Russia’s Navalny out of coma & Trump refuses to condemn Russia over poisoning (BBC)
The South Asian Surge
- On Monday, India saw COVID-19 cases surge by over 90,000 in just 24 hours, putting them in undesirable company with the United States at the top of the global caseload leaderboard. With a total of 4.2 million confirmed cases, the Asian giant has now surpassed Brazil as the second-worst-hit country in the world.
- And while they still trail the United States by around 2 million positive cases, these numbers come in stark contrast to the continual loosening of restrictions in the world’s second most populous nation. As the virus seeps into the nation’s rural towns and villages, the capital city of New Delhi appears further disjointed from reality. Bars and restaurants are slated to reopen on Wednesday, a paradoxical move that can only be justified in the context of India’s similarly jarring economic figures from last quarter.
- From April to June — amidst widespread shutdowns — Indian GDP contracted by nearly 24 percent. Sure, some decline was to be expected: but India’s economy shrank faster than any other major nation as migrant workers fled urban areas, forcing authorities to reverse course and reopen the country. In a news briefing last week, top federal health official Rajesh Bhushan attempted to justify the anomalous decision. “While lives are important, livelihoods are equally important,” Bhushan said.
- For big cities like New Delhi, early control over the virus is slipping away despite an aggressive urban screening strategy. Economic despair has prompted well-contained areas to forfeit temporary victory over the virus in order to hemorrhage a bleeding job market.
- India’s recent viral relapse can be attributed to an overreliance on cheap rapid tests and a mass exodus of migrant workers from cities back into the hinterland. Underdeveloped villages now account for almost 60% of the nation’s cases, as unemployed laborers fled to their hometowns in light of Prime Minister Modi’s economic shutdown. (NBC)
Additional COVID-19 Reads
- It’s all downhill from here: Everyone was drenched in the virus’: was this Austrian ski resort a COVID-19 ground zero? (Guardian)
- Coronavirus spikes in Spain, France and U.K. raise specter of second wave (NBC)
- How a basic income experiment helped these Kenyans weather the COVID-19 crisis (Vox)
- A pandemic paradox: Why is it that while Covid-19 cases are rising, deaths continue to fall? (Guardian)
- Pharma Companies Plan Joint Pledge on Vaccine Safety (NYT, $)
- The Coronavirus May Change College Admissions Forever (NYT, $).
- The Pandemic Is No Excuse to Surveil Students (Atlantic, $)
Additional World News
- A self-styled Sultan: Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Love Affair with the Ottoman Empire Should Worry The World (Time)
- Tunisia’s Youth Still Struggle A Decade After The Uprising (NPR). Has the Arab Spring really sprung?
- Jennifer Laude case: Duterte pardons US marine over transgender killing (BBC)
- Sweet as Suga: How Abe’s right-hand man made his play for Japan’s top job (Reuters).
- China Freezes Credentials for Journalists at U.S. Outlets, Hinting at Expulsions (NYT, $)
- Australian journalists flown out of China ‘amid diplomatic standoff’ (BBC)
- Australia faces down China in high-stakes strategy (Reuters). Standing up in the land Down Under.
- Hong Kong shocked by violent police arrest of 12-year-old girl (Guardian)
- Julian Assange extradition hearing begins at Old Bailey (Guardian)
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Blacklisting White Supremacists
(David Ryder via Getty Images)
- According to three slightly different drafts of the annual threat assessment set to be published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), white supremacists are the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the US. It is listed above the immediate danger from foreign terrorist groups.
- None of the drafts, reviewed by Politico, referred to a threat from Antifa, the loose cohort of militant left-leaning agitators who senior Trump administration officials have described as domestic terrorists. Ben Wittes, editor in chief of the national security site Lawfare, obtained the documents and shared them with POLITICO.
- The earliest draft has the strongest language on the threat from “white supremacist extremists” as being “the most persistent and lethal threat,” in an introductory section labeled “Key Takeaways.” The language is watered down to read “domestic violent extremists” on subsequent drafts, which Wittes says is significant. “It diminishes the prominence of white supremacy relative to other domestic violent extremism, and, without being inaccurate, puts it in a basket along with other violent activity that may be more palatable for the administration to acknowledge.”
- Two former top DHS political appointees said last month that White House national security officials didn’t want to refer to killings by right-wing extremists as domestic terrorism. Current DHS leaders have been much more vocal in highlighting federal efforts to target Antifa. (Politico)
Trump Gets Struck by Strzok
- Former senior FBI agent Peter Strzok was the agent at the center of investigations into the Hillary Clinton email server and President Trump’s ties to Russia. He was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and later fired over disparaging texts he sent about President Trump. Strzok remained silent while Trump and his supporters vilified him. Now he has a new memoir out Tuesday: “Compromised.”
- In the book, Strzok provides a detailed navigation of the two politically toxic investigations, and reveals details about the FBI’s internal debate over investigating the president himself. Initially, Strzok was opposed to investigating Trump, but after studying the evidence, he concluded that the president is hopelessly corrupt and a national security threat.
- Strzok writes that the investigations he oversaw showed the president’s “willingness to accept political assistance from an opponent like Russia — and, it follows, his willingness to subvert everything America stands for.” Attorney General William Barr has appointed a special prosecutor to review the conduct of the FBI, Strzok, and others for possible misconduct and bias. But the department’s inspector general Michael Horowitz found the bureau had sufficient reason to open the inquiry, and there was no evidence of political bias. (NYT)
Additional USA News
- The commander in grief: Trump’s bad marriage with the military has finally exploded (WaPo, $)
- Here’s the problem for Donald Trump with the Atlantic story & Corroboration for ‘Atlantic’ Story on Trump Attacking Troops (CNN, NY Mag)
- In tell-all book, Michael Cohen says Trump hired a ‘Faux-Bama’ during White House run (CNN). Oh yes, the classic Faux-Bama faux pas.
- Fascism Scholar Says U.S. Is ‘Losing Its Democratic Status’ (NPR)
- Nearly all Black Lives Matter protests are peaceful despite Trump narrative, report finds (Guardian)
- How white people gentrified Black Lives Matter (LA Times, $). When activism is in vogue, there are downsides.
- The Wages of Whiteness (NY Books)
- Here’s Why BuzzFeed News Is Calling QAnon A “Collective Delusion” From Now On (Buzzfeed News)
- Stamping out tours: Postal Service police block Florida congresswoman from touring USPS plants (WaPo, $)
- California Roasts As Record Heat Wave Exacerbates Devastating Fire Season (NPR)
Driving Less Drives Up Productivity
- The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to participate in an unplanned experiment: working from home, along with its close companion, homeschooling. Contrary to popular expectation, moving around half the nation’s workforce into home offices has actually gone remarkably smoothly. Most kinds of desk work have continued almost as if nothing had changed. And quite unexpectedly, the results of the unplanned experiment forced upon us suggests we might have stumbled upon a massive opportunity for a microeconomic reform, including increased productivity rates.
- It starts with the commute. The average worker spends an hour on commuting every work day, which, amazingly, has remained about the same since Neolithic times. If working from home eliminates an hour of commuting, without changing time spent on work or reducing production, the result would be equivalent to a 13 percent increase in productivity (assuming a 38-hour working work).
- If half the workforce achieved such a gain, it would be equivalent to a 6.5 percent increase in productivity for the labor force as a whole. By comparison, the radical microeconomic reforms of the 1990s, including privatization, deregulation, and national competition policy, were estimated to increase national income by 5.5 percent.
- In retrospect, the total increase relative to the long-term trend was less than one percentage point per year above normal. Even so, those reforms were widely seen as a crucial contributor to economic prosperity. So an improvement of 6.5 percent would be a huge benefit. If such predictions are correct, it would be enough over a few years to offset the economic costs of the lockdown and many other impacts of the pandemic. And even if this initial estimate turns out to be misleading, there are still real net benefits.
- Of course, it’ll be harder for those workers who crave the “social contacts” at work, or for those who rely on chatting to colleagues to develop ideas, or middle managers whose jobs revolve around physically keeping an eye on people to make sure they are at their desks, working. (The Conversation)
- Sustainable cyber-studying: The Right to Repair could help address a critical shortage in school computers (US PIRG)
- Qualcomm’s Founder On Why the US Doesn’t Have Its Own Huawei (Wired) Huawei we go, or do we?
- None Of Us Is Perfect—Not Even The Venerable Hubble Space Telescope (NPR)
- ‘One Billion Americans,’ by Matthew Yglesias: Book Excerpt (NY Mag, $)
- Review: ‘The WEIRDest People in the World,’ by Joseph Henrich (Atlantic, $)
- What we can learn from William Blake’s visionary imagination (Aeon)
- Journalists Aren’t the Enemy of the People. But We’re Not Your Friends. (NYT, $). Don’t shoot the messenger, but be careful not to heap on too much praise.
- Jazz Has Always Been Protest Music. Can It Meet This Moment? (NYT, $)
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