Dec 15, 2020

The COVID-19 vaccines are here.

The COVID-19 vaccines are here.

Now what?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The COVID-19 vaccine, a question about bioweapons and some interesting numbers.

Quick hits.

  1. The Electoral College cast its votes yesterday without a single faithless elector, awarding Joe Biden the presidency by a 306 to 232 margin.
  2. President Trump announced yesterday that Attorney General William Barr will be stepping down before Christmas. Barr will be succeeded by his Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.
  3. President-elect Joe Biden denounced President Trump’s attacks on the election yesterday, calling them “unconscionable” and saying no officials should face pressure to overturn election results.
  4. Optimism is rising that Congress is closing in on a final COVID-19 relief bill after months of negotiations and stalemates, but there are only a few days to get it done.
  5. Smartmatic, the electronic voting system company, is demanding retractions from Fox News, Newsmax and One America News for “false and defamatory statements” about the company’s purported role in election fraud.

What D.C. is talking about.

The COVID-19 vaccines. Yesterday, the first Americans received doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Health care workers and residents at nursing homes across the country began rolling up their sleeves as the first to be inoculated. More than 145 sites around the country received millions of doses, and shipments are expected to continue throughout the coming months. This morning, The New York Times reported that Moderna’s vaccine will be approved by the FDA this week.

The vaccines mark, for the first time, a significant light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still not clear how quickly most of the country will get inoculated. States appear to have vastly different processes to roll the vaccines out and are in need of more money to get it done. There are plenty of logistical hurdles at the federal level, too. It’s also unclear how many people are willing to take the vaccine — skepticism about vaccines is rampant, and polls show that nonwhite communities are particularly worried about the safety of vaccines. Some health experts have suggested life could reach something that resembles “normal” by spring or summer with a population willing to get vaccinated. Others believe it may not be until next fall.

But while we wait for more doses to arrive, the virus continues to spread. We are hitting record highs in every significant category: new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths per day. This is, simply put, the worst the pandemic has ever been. On the same day the first Americans were vaccinated, we eclipsed 300,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. “The number of dead rivals the population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh,” the Associated Press reported. “It is more than five times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. It is equal to a 9/11 attack every day for more than 100 days.”

We’ve already reached half the total of Americans who die from cancer in a year — 606,520 — and more than 3,000 people are dying per day. Over 100,000 are currently hospitalized, and we’re averaging more than one million new cases a week. With Christmas and the new year approaching, health experts are warning about another wave of fresh spread when families travel on planes or across the country. In the wake of Thanksgiving, as expected, we saw a spike in cases across the U.S.

In response to the vaccine distribution, health experts and pundits from the left and right have been writing about what this means and what to make of this latest news.

Data via The COVID Tracking Project


Both the left and right have marveled at the speed of such a scientific achievement, as neither side thought a safe vaccine could be produced this quickly. There also seems to be a consensus about prioritizing the inoculation of nursing home residents, health care workers and other essential workers (like grocery store clerks and teachers) who can’t avoid contacting people. And plenty of people on both sides are arguing that we should prioritize high-risk communities, including low-income Americans and those who operate in poor working conditions.

What the left is saying.

The left believes the vaccines have gone through the necessary protocol for safety and wants a plan to focus on vulnerable communities.

In a CNN op-ed, Megan Ranney and Esther Choo, two health care physicians, wrote about why they are getting the vaccine. “We, like many fellow health care providers, were initially concerned about political pressure being put on the US Food and Drug Administration,” they wrote. “Ultimately, though, four reasons, based on our years of experience in emergency medicine, public health and clinical trials, informed our decision to trust the vaccine -- and get vaccinated…

“These vaccines' development did not cut corners,” they said. “Moderna's and Pfizer's compressed timeline reflects unique partnerships between industry, government, and academia, high levels of funding, and decades of previous research on mRNA vaccines, as well as countless individuals working day and night given the nature of the crisis. Authorization may be expedited, but both organizations followed the requisite orderly progression from Phase 1 to Phase 3 trials. The careful scientific design and rigor has given us a great deal of confidence in the final product…

“Pfizer's Phase 3 results have additionally undergone external peer review and been published in the New England Journal of Medicine,” they added. “Each of these independent reviews was incentivized to identify problems, not to gloss them over. It's also tremendously unlikely that all of them missed a problem related to safety and efficacy.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board published an op-ed thanking everyone who participated in the historic process to deliver the vaccine.

“Thank you to the scientists who started working on the vaccine in February, even before it was clear how widespread the pandemic would become,” it wrote. “Thank you to the thousands of clinical trial volunteers who risked their health to take an experimental vaccine for the benefit of others. Thank you to the government officials who worked to limit the bureaucratic red tape that typically makes vaccine development a years-long process, and for doing it without compromising safety controls. And thanks, too, to President Trump. That’s right. Though the Trump administration bungled so much about the COVID-19 response, making the U.S. a global embarrassment and the world’s leader in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, its Operation Warp Speed delivered… By investing $14 billion in research and development and the pre-purchase of vaccines, and allowing concurrent trials in the second and third phases, the administration was able to truncate a years-long process into just months.”

Both sides seem to agree about who to vaccinate first, but many on the left are also calling for prisons to be a focus.

“For Covid-19, prisons, jails and other detention centers are arguably the worst environment to be living in,” Ashish Prashar and DeAnna Hoskins wrote in NBC News. “These populations are uniquely vulnerable to the virus: Confinement is the antithesis of social distancing as cells are small and shared showers and common areas are natural Covid incubators. Meanwhile, supplies such as soap and masks are scarce… Incarcerated individuals are four times more likely to become infected than people in the general population… We need urgent action now, with vaccines prioritized for distribution among incarceration facilities along with nursing homes and health care settings.”

What the right is saying.

The right agrees we need to prioritize hotspots and vulnerable communities, praises Donald Trump’s success and argues that Joe Biden’s plan needs work.

In The American Enterprise Institute, Kirsten Axelsen and Benson Hsu argued that “excess mortality in the minority community is attributable to socioeconomic factors, including lower-income as well as below-average living and working conditions.

“People with lower income or crowded living conditions may not be able to follow public health measures such as social distancing, remote work, or even use of masks,” they said. It is alarming to note that CDC makes no clear mention of economic or working conditions when both so clearly put certain people at risk. Furthermore, many low-income jobs are as essential to a functioning society as healthcare provision… As the US explores vaccination distribution, recommendations from federal agencies such as the CDC should look to existing data regarding disproportionally impacted populations. This has already been done for those ages greater than 65. The same calculations should be applied to low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities.”

In Spectator USA, Amber Athey praised President Trump and criticized the media, noting when Trump kept insisting we’d have a vaccine by the end of the year — he’d be “fact-checked” and hammered by the press for lying to the public. “The media could have accepted that the President probably has better insight into the timeline of vaccine development and approval than those not involved in the process. Instead, they roundly mocked his prediction, declaring with the backing of so-called ‘experts’ that it would require a ‘miracle’ for the vaccine to be ready by 2021.

“Many Americans cited the handling of the pandemic as a key voting issue,” she added. “It would have hurt Biden immensely if Americans were made to be optimistic about Trump delivering a vaccine so quickly. Never mind that these same people had been wrong about nearly everything related to the pandemic. They discouraged buying masks, only to advocate for mask mandates months later. They ignored the negative externalities of a nationwide lockdown, insisting that the public health and economic damage from such policies was necessary to slow the spread. They claimed Black Lives Matter protests and antifa riots were necessary and safe, but that Trump rallies were super-spreader events. They insisted that reopening schools would kill teachers en masse even though all available data now shows that in-person learning is perfectly safe.”

In The Washington Post, Ray Domanico criticized Biden’s 100-day plan, which puts teachers at the front of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“President-elect Joe Biden has been lecturing Americans for months about the need to follow the science on COVID-19,” Domanico wrote. “Yet his plan to put teachers at the front of the line for vaccination, second only to health-care workers and nursing-home residents, is driven not by science but by pure political pandering. To begin, the very notion that there should be a single nationwide priority list is scientifically flawed: There is extreme local variation in both the severity and causes of the virus’s spread, which should be reflected in any decisions about vaccination. In the case of putting teachers near the front of the line, however, the science is especially dubious. What medical principles indicate that a teacher in rural Oregon, where virus spread is extremely low, should be vaccinated before a worker in a meatpacking facility in Iowa, where COVID-19 has been surging?”

My take.

I got choked up watching the first woman in England get vaccinated, and I felt similarly overwhelmed watching the first vaccinations take place here. For me, it’s a mix of profound sadness at what we’ve lost, colliding with hope for an end to it all.

First and foremost I think about 300,000 dead Americans. I think about the fact that so many of them were “the elderly” and it does not give me comfort — it breaks my heart. Our elders are the salt of the earth. Temples of wisdom now isolated and in hiding across the country. These are men and women who lived through suffrage, World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the internet; they have seen presidents come and go and watched the world change dramatically in front of them. No degree of expertise or intelligence can replace the experience of just having been around the block enough times to know what’s what. Who and what we’ve lost in such a short period of time cannot be overstated.

Of course, it’s not just the elderly. I think about the middle-aged moms and dads whose kids are now growing up with one parent. I think about the long-term damage being done to young adults facing neurological issues, physical impairment and other bizarre, horrific ailments we don’t yet understand. The long haulers. I think about the health care workers and business owners who have been ruined not physically but emotionally and/or financially. And I think about the children, however few they are, who have also been victims of this thing we could not keep them from getting.

This virus has done a lot of damage. I’m just one person, one American, but the carnage is all around me. My mom is weeks away from her final cancer treatment, putting her in the highest-risk group possible. She’s had to live in a constant state of paranoia for nearly a year to protect herself. My dad was making a living driving for Uber and saw his income evaporate overnight. My oldest brother made a living running music festivals and his industry may never recover; live music disappeared just as he bought a home. My fiance is working full-time in theater production and going to college full-time; her company had to lay off most of its staff and she’s now struggled through two semesters of online school.

I’ve been living in New York City for six years. Every person I know here has a friend or family member who has gotten the virus. Many know people who died or remain irreparably ill, as New York still carries the worst death toll in the country. We’re planning a wedding for the summer that may not even happen, and every week I talk to vendors whose businesses could be gone by the spring. My favorite bars and restaurants are closing down all around me, many of my friends are out of work, our city’s budget is collapsing and our governor is lining up book tours to crow about how well he handled the virus.

I’m only one person. And that’s just my life and my most immediate family. Pausing to consider this reality layered on top of hundreds of millions of people is unfathomable. But now we have some hope. However far in the woods we remain, with all the logistical hurdles and the vaccine skepticism and the known unknowns (like whether the vaccine actually stops the spread or just stops the symptoms), we finally have some hope.

We need our frontline healthcare workers covered first, as well as our nursing home residents, and I’ll wait patiently while that happens — as we all should. Smart governance here would prioritize the communities and places that have been impacted most, which means factory workers, grocery store workers, detention centers, restaurants, bus drivers, and low-income, densely populated communities. It probably does not mean teachers, although prioritizing teacher vaccinations to open schools immediately seems to be a reasonable strategy to me. There is no meritocracy in human life, but there is common sense about going after hotspots — and an inmate’s life should be weighed the same as a grocery store clerk’s or that of a member of Congress. Let’s just focus on the places where the virus is spreading the fastest.

Will I get the vaccine? Hell yeah. As much as life is crushingly isolated for me right now, I can work from home and social distance for another couple of months. When it’s my “turn” I’m going to get it and I’m going to encourage everyone I know to get it, too (of course, consult your doctor and don’t take medical advice from a stranger on the internet). I don’t care if you’re a scientist or a statist or a born again Christian: It’s a miracle of science, of government, of God. Take the cue and thank whoever it is you have faith in that we have a road out of this. I’ll be thanking all three.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Given how divided America has become about responding to COVID-19 (masks v no masks, social distancing v not social distancing) and the various views of the magnitude of the death count, are we at-risk of proving to other countries that American is an easy target for a bioweapon of some kind?

— Michelle from Utah

It’s a frightening question, and you’re not the only one asking it. Warnings about bioweapons have been in the U.S. press for years, and Dr. Anthony Fauci — now well-known for his role in the COVID-19 response — was attending conferences that discussed this topic when George W. Bush was president. Andrea Howard wrote a fascinating piece on what our coronavirus response can tell us about bioweapons, including a brief paragraph on their history:

One of the earliest examples of biological warfare occurred over 2,000 years ago, when Assyrians infected enemy wells with rye ergot fungus. In 1763, the British army presented smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans during the Siege of Fort Pitt. During World War II, the Japanese army poisoned over 1,000 water wells in Chinese villages to study typhus and cholera outbreaks. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult contaminated salad bars in Oregon restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium, causing 751 cases of enteritis. Most recently, Bacillus anthracis spores sent in the U.S. postal system induced 22 cases of anthrax and five deaths in 2001, and three U.S. Senate office buildings shut down in February 2004 after the discovery of ricin in a mailroom.

In short: yes, it does tell other countries that we are vulnerable, and our military is very aware of the problem this creates. Strategically, one of the great deterrents to terrorist attacks or enemy aggression is “deterrence by denial” — the idea that an enemy won’t try an attack if they don’t believe it will succeed. Maintaining the belief a bioweapon would fail, along with the difficulty in using it accurately, is key to deterring its use. As such, the military has been open about its planning for bioweapon attacks and very much wants the world to know we are ready.

We also have the Biological Weapons Convention, with 182 member states. This is a particularly strong social contract, as it has kept most governments from using biological weapons since 1975 — transferring the threat primarily to terrorist organizations. Perhaps the most dangerous wargame scenario is a sophisticated country vaccinating its own citizens against a particular bioweapon and then releasing it on the world. That’s something many writers and war experts fear, but at this moment it seems far more likely a pathogen escapes from a lab or a bioweapon is deployed by a rogue group.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic, but the general thrust of it is that genetic engineering is making the threat much more real than it’s ever been — and COVID-19 proved we’d have a hard time stopping such an attack (though I’m sure national unity and public response would look vastly different if it were framed as an attack, which is a fascinating thing to consider). There’s a great Foreign Policy piece on this topic and Howard’s story in War on the Rocks is good too.

A story that matters.

The Federal Trade Commission is launching a new inquiry into privacy and data collection practices of several tech giants, including Amazon, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The FTC is going to use wide-ranging powers to examine what the platforms do with our data, and how they use that data to create long-term business strategies. Typically, studies like this are used to create new enforcement actions, should any wrongdoing be uncovered.


  • 64%. The percentage of the House GOP caucus that signed onto a Texas lawsuit to invalidate millions of votes in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
  • 30-40 million. The total number of Americans who have been at risk of foreclosure or eviction due to the pandemic.
  • 2.4-5 million. The number of Americans who are at risk of foreclosure or eviction this January.
  • 9%. In September, the percentage of Republicans who said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s available.
  • 25%. This week, the percentage of Republicans who said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s available.
  • 15%. In September, the percentage of Democrats who said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s available.
  • 31%. This week, the percentage of Democrats who said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s available.
  • 168,000. The number of people who voted on the first day of early voting in the Georgia runoff elections.
  • 136,000. The number of people who voted on the first day of the Georgia elections during the 2020 presidential race.

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Have a nice day.

John Hobson is 93 years old, but that isn’t stopping him from making the world a better place. The retired Air Force colonel has made a hobby — and a good deed — out of whittling walking sticks. Hobson has carved about 100 so far this year, taking a day to make each one, and he sells them for $3 a pop. Then he takes the money and donates it to a local pantry — where he’s already raised more than $600. With news reports of his hobby spreading, Hobson set up a GoFundMe for the pantry that has raised $1,500 already. Asked why he does it, Hobson had a simple answer: "Makes me feel good.”

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