In This Episode
- With more and more Americans becoming fully vaccinated against COVID-19, officials have signaled a willingness to revise mask wearing rules again for those who have gotten their shots. Globally, the Biden administration has finally gotten behind the idea of waiving patents on vaccines so that generic versions of the drugs can be produced abroad, especially in places that are experiencing extreme surges in coronavirus cases. To answer the most pressing questions we have about this new phase of the pandemic, we spoke with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist, physician, and former health commissioner of Detroit.
- And in headlines: Israel’s Supreme Court delays a decision regarding planned evictions of Palestinian families, a piece of a rocket from China lands in the ocean by the Maldives, and the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby may have been doping.
Gideon Resnick: It is Monday, May 10th.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m Dr. Abdul El-Sayed in for the indomitable Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick. And this is What A Day, where we went on Shark Tank to pitch our idea for a podcast that is about the news.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: They could barely believe what they were hearing. It was so innovative.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, Mark Cuban still needs to be resuscitated. Just going to be honest.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, first things first, Akilah is on vacation for the next couple of weeks, but we are going to have a range of guests with us while she’s out. Sorry for you. You are stuck with me, so turn this off if you want less of that. But today, most importantly, epidemiologist, physician, our friend, former Detroit health commissioner Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is here. Abdul is wonderful to have you back. Thank you.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It is great to be back with you. The last time I was here it was me and Akilah. And today it’s me and you Gideon. And I’m looking forward to cutting through the news.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s going to be great. He’s also the host of America Dissected, which just debuted its latest season. If you haven’t downloaded it at this point, you still have a chance to. And now is your moment. Go do it. But for today’s latest, there is a lot of coronavirus news that is out there in the world, and this is a good time to tap your expertise. So that’s what we’re going to do. Let’s get right to it. Officials said yesterday that they are open to, quote “being more liberal” and relaxing mask wearing rules again for vaccinated people, this time possibly at indoor public spaces. Here’s Dr. Fauci on ABC yesterday:
[clip of Dr. Fauci] We do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated. As you get more people vaccinated, the number of cases per day will absolutely go down.
Gideon Resnick: Right. So people might remember that a few weeks ago, officials said that vaccinated people can do away with facemasks in many outdoor settings or small indoor gatherings with other vaccinated people. So Abdul, what do you think of the direction that they’re going in here?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think this is bringing policy to the science. We know that, a) when it came to outdoor masking, that outdoors is one of the safest places you can be when it comes to transition. And now we know that vaccinated people are very protected when it comes to this virus. And so it can change what they are able to do, you know, for them, where social distancing and masking was what was keeping them safe. Now they’ve got a vaccine, and that vaccine is what’s keeping them safe.
Gideon Resnick: And so what do you think that these moves overall might have on vaccine hesitancy or resistance, as it were? There was this recent UCLA study that found Republicans who, by polling, are more likely to resist vaccines already had the most incentive to actually get a shot if it meant that they no longer had to wear a mask.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, it’s hard to believe that making anything more liberal is what’s going to motivate Republicans to do something, but when it comes down to it, it’s important that we offer incentives to people to get vaccinated. One of the challenges right now is that as more and more people are getting vaccinated who were hesitant—they’re seeing their friends and their loved ones get vaccinated—the folks who are left over tend to be folks who are a bit more resistant. And for them, it’s really important to change the calculation on what they can expect on the other side. And I think changing these recommendations so that they are more in line with what the science is telling us, creates those incentives and may, in fact, get people up off the sidelines.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And, you know, to that point, we’re starting to see a lot more of what it does actually mean in the US when we have this supply begin to outstrip demand. We have states that are turning down doses. And the amount administered overall is declining pretty significantly. So what do you think that means for President Biden’s goal to have 60% of adults vaccinated by July 4th? For point of reference for our listeners were at almost 44% right now, so that’s just 16% left to go. So possible, I guess.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It is possible, but it’s only just that: it’s possible. There’s a lot more that has to be done to make sure that we are getting folks up off the sidelines. And one of the challenges with some of the past changes and recommendations is that there was a lot of overpromising and a little bit of under-delivery. And so let’s hope a lot of what the administration is laying out now does actually start moving the needle for people who are still just a bit skeptical, if not resistant.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, yeah. I think on that point of the oversell/under deliver-type thing makes a lot of sense because sometimes you do have these situations where people have to take their individual risks at heart and sort of make all these calculations on their own for whatever setting that they’re in. Also in COVID news, officials with the World Trade Organization met last week about the patents that U.S. Drug manufacturers have on their COVID vaccines, and whether to waive them. President Biden backed this idea after international pressure. And we’re still waiting on an ultimate decision there. But you were talking about how there are kind of two sides to this debate. So let’s start with what good you think would come if those patents were waived.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, here’s the most important thing. It puts public health over profit. We know that the corporations who manufacture these vaccines, Big Pharma, they want to nickel and dime as much as they can to make as much money off of this product. That, by the way, you and I as American taxpayers paid for through Operation Warp Speed. And it’s not just that we’re doing the right thing morally, it’s also a matter of our own safety. We could vaccinate every single American, Gideon, and even then, it’s possible that as the virus continues to run amok abroad, where people are not vaccinated, that this, this virus could take on a mutation that would allow it to slip our vaccine-mediated immunity, which would put all of us back at risk. And so this is both something that we have to do morally in terms of the correct thing to do, but it’s also the right thing to do pragmatically to protect ourselves in this country.
Gideon Resnick: I think that’s a great way to put it, having the two parts coexist at the same time. But on the other side, there is a side that resists this for different reasons. Pfizer, which just, by the way, is poised to make billions and billions this year, is against it. But so are several European countries, thus far at least. Why is this the case?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I think there’s good-faith opposition and bad-faith opposition. Let’s talk about the good-faith opposition first. A lot of folks worry about the supply chain. Of course, manufacturing these vaccines at scale requires a lot of supplies and they worry that if we were to waive the vaccine waiver, you’d have a lot more manufacturers come on line, and that they disrupt the supply chain by pulling so much out of it through the increased demand. There’s also worry about quality control, that there’s already been a challenge with quality control right here in the United States, that a lot of the facilities that would be manufacturing this might not be up to snuff in terms of manufacturing these mRNA vaccines. The important thing to remember, though, is that the majority of the world’s vaccines are manufactured abroad, and folks have a lot of experience in doing this. Then there’s the bad faith, of course, and that bad faith is coming from vaccine manufacturers who don’t want to lose billions more on top of the billions they’re already making. And to put in perspective, Pfizer made 3.5 billion dollars in quarter one of 2021 already. And of course, they want to make sure that they can continue to gouge low-income people in low-income countries to make even more. And that’s a pretty bad-faith approach to worrying about what this waiver might do.
Gideon Resnick: Right. I completely agree. Yeah. When you see the impact on their stocks, that’s a moment where it’s almost like: yeah, let’s do it then. Even if the patents are waived, you mentioned things like quality control, but what else would have to happen for these vaccines to actually be manufactured and distributed?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, as we talked about, the supply chain really is important. And there are a lot of reagents and supplies, everything from the vials that these get stored into, the reagents that go in to making these vaccine doses in the first place—we have to make sure that we’re ramping up supply so that we can actually meet the global demand. The other point is to make sure that we have a quality-control approach that makes sure that these vaccine doses are safe and effective coming out of these different manufacturers. But then even if this is waive, right, there’s still a whole lot of deal making that has to happen. What would happen here is that if the waiver was granted, rather than being able to try and cut their own deals and profiteer off of these vaccines, manufacturers would basically get a certain dollar per dose for all of the vaccine that was produced off patent, per se. And we also know that even beyond that, there is a responsibility that the United States has to making sure that these vaccines get manufactured. It’s one thing to say that you support a waiver. It’s another entirely to make sure that the world get vaccinated. And there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done there.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. I also want to check in on two particular situations we talked about on the show that have also been the subject of a lot of news over the last weeks and months. Specifically India and Brazil, which have been in dire straits for a long time now. Last week, the World Health Organization said that half of the globe’s new COVID infections came from just those two countries alone. So, Abdul, if you look at this on the ground level, what are things that you’ve seen in those countries that have led to these massive numbers? They’re obviously very different situations, but what have we learned about the trajectories of the virus there?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Gideon, it is so sad to watch. And frankly, it’s a humanitarian failure. And it’s the combination of a couple of intersecting trends. The first is profound poverty. It’s really hard to social distance in a favela or in a slum. And that’s a circumstance in which many, many people in these countries find themselves. Their health care systems are under-resourced, and that means that people are going without basic care simply because there’s not the oxygen or the physician or nurse supply to be able to care for them. And then we can’t forget the role that politics has to play. These are countries that are led by autocrats, who have—Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil who’s downplayed this pandemic, who has undercut mask-wearing and vaccinations. And then you got Narendra Modi in in India, who has been actively campaigning and encouraging people to show up to his rallies, which sounds very similar to what our former president with autocratic tendencies was doing in the lead up to his election. And so you bring these three things together and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And it’s sad to see the number of people who are being infected and dying because of this.
Gideon Resnick: It is it’s awful, and if you look beyond places where the pandemic is still wildly out of control, there are also lots of countries that have yet to see any vaccines at all. So if the US can’t find a way to share its vaccine supply with the rest of the world, what is your outlook for what the pandemic actually looks like towards the end of this year?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Let’s not forget Gideon that this is a global pandemic, with emphasis on the word global. We cannot pretend like what happens abroad does not affect us. And the worry that I have, right, is as we were looking forward to a summer where we can finally look back and see the pandemic in the rearview, that if there were to be a new variant that emerged in a place abroad that was in fact resistant to our vaccine-mediated immunity, that we would be looking right back at that pandemic again. And I don’t want to get there. And in order to do that, we have to protect ourselves by protecting everyone on the globe. And that means making sure that everyone gets access to these safe and effective vaccines, and that we as a global community can look back and see the pandemic in the rearview.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I think that’s right. We are absolutely all in this together. Well, thank you so much again for sharing all the insight, as always. That is the latest for now.
Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we are talking about up-and-coming comedians/electric-car-tycoon Elon Musk, who hosted the Saturday Night Live this weekend. As is often the case with sketch comedy, the episode was a mixed bag, which caused a meme-based cryptocurrency to fall by about 30%. The highly volatile token Dogecoin may or may not have recovered by now, but it was fascinating to see it take a huge dip in value around the same time that Musk, who is one of its main evangelists, was mentioning it repeatedly on television. The significance of the world’s second richest man hosting SNL was in some ways greater, though, than the significance of the show’s actual content. So Abdul, what did you think of all this?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I’ve got to say, this is definitely put the emphasis in sketch, in sketch comedy. And Elon Musk, look, he has disrupted a number of different sectors, but comedy is not one of them. And I got stunk it up. And the other point is this, is it’s sad to see one of the most important stages in pop culture be given to laundering the reputation of an individual, who up until very recently has been denying the seriousness of this pandemic, has been denying the use of masks, and doesn’t think he should be paying taxes. So with all of that, it was a little bit frustrating. What do you think, Gideon?
Gideon Resnick: I think the same thing, really. I mean, well, you know, the sketches did not land. I was exposed to them after the fact, and they did not work for me. But I will say that, you know, Lorne Michaels somewhere is probably laughing his ass off about all of this, because they, you know, this is like—this is kind of like the Trump playbook in a way, with SNL, where they book these people who, you know, are clearly controversial figures for whatever various reasons. I would argue, you know, in hindsight, booking Donald Trump in advance of the election was not a good move on the part of this show or the network. But, and in turn, it sort of generates this kind of level of conversation about a cultural artifact that at the moment is certainly not at its zenith. So in that sense, I mean, I guess they got what they were looking for. But, you know, if Elon doing strange head motions with a fake Italian accent as Wario is part and parcel of that, [laughs] I mean, that’s, that’s what you got. So you got what you paid for.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You’ve got to, got to give the people what they never knew they wanted.
Gideon Resnick: Yes. Yes. I hope to not see it again. But just like that, we have checked our temps. Stay safe, watch SNL if you feel you need to, and we’ll be back after some ads.
Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The Israeli Supreme Court has delayed a controversial decision regarding planned evictions of Palestinian families after a weekend of police violence in Jerusalem. Over 300 Palestinians were injured by Israeli police around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered one of the holiest sites in Islam. The violence also began on one of the holiest sites in the month of Ramadan. Riot police stormed the mosque as thousands prayed and others protested restrictions on worship that have been imposed by the Israeli government. Tensions have been high since the beginning of Ramadan, with one major focal point being an upcoming Supreme Court hearing that could allow Jewish settlers to evict several Palestinian families living in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood based on the argument that the land was owned by Jewish families before 1948. Palestinian leaders have described these evictions as attempts to carry out ethnic cleansing.
Gideon Resnick: Awful. An explosion near a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed over 50 people and injured 100 more on Saturday. It was caused by an initial car bomb, followed by two separate blasts. No group so far has claimed responsibility for the tragedy. And a spokesperson for the Taliban has denied involvement. There was speculation that female students were the target of the attacks, with the explosions happening when girls attend classes in the afternoon, and the majority of the victims were girls as well. The bombing was the latest in a series of similar attacks that have happened in Afghanistan over the last few months. And this all comes as the U.S. And NATO have begun withdrawing the remaining troops from the country.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: This is absolutely horrific. And anybody who targets children is just an awful human being.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: If you can hear this, you were not hit by a large chunk of spaceship debris that fell from the sky this weekend. The debris was from China’s Long March 5B rocket booster, which helped carry out part of the country’s space station into orbit. It weighed 23 tons and was about 10 stories high, so for most space agencies, it would technically qualify as “king-sized litter.” China didn’t announce that the piece was coming down until Sunday, leaving many to speculate about where it would land. At one point, the European Space Agency predicted a risk zone that included virtually all of the Americas south of New York, all of Africa and Australia, plus parts of Europe and Asia, meaning that, by my calculations, 75% of the world’s population had the potential to experience a Looney Tunes style cartoon flattening.
Gideon Resnick: Oh my God. [snorts]
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Ultimately, much of the debris burned up upon reentry and the remainder splashed down in the Indian Ocean just west of the Maldives on Sunday morning. Still, the incident drew criticism from NASA, which said in typically scientifically underwhelming language, quote “China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” For the next batch of vaccines, we should maybe try to add protection against falling space trash.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, wait for two weeks and then look up at the sky, you might be safe. A celebrated athlete has been hit by controversy, and it’s not just because he always competes without pants on. Medina Spirit, the horse that won the 2021 Kentucky Derby last weekend, reportedly failed a drug test after the race. Specifically the test detected high amounts of anti-inflammatory corticosteroid that reduces joint pain and swelling, theoretically allowing a horse to run faster. Now, Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby more than any other trainer, but he’s also faced persistent accusations of cheating, with his horse’s failing 30 separate drug tests over the last four decades. That’s quite a bit Bob. The obvious explanation is that the horses are teaching each other how to make pills. Baffert has been suspended, but he denies wrongdoing in the matter. He said, quote “there’s problems in racing, but it’s not Bob Baffert.” FYI, the law considers the sentence to be the same as saying I’m guilty. That’s how it worked in law school, when I learned it. Whether Medina Spirit holds on to his title depends on another round of tests. If those tests come back positive, the win and the 1.8 million dollar first prize check will go to the substance-free runner up Mandaloun.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, that’s like Donald Trump saying there are problems in politics, but it’s not Donald Trump.
Gideon Resnick: [laughs] Yes, exactly. Bob, Donald would like a word. And those are the headlines.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today, if you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, put some pants on your horse, and tell your friends to listen.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And, if you are into reading, and not just the future for clues about where space trash will land like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Abdul El-Sayed.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And shape up Bob Baffert!
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Come on, man, stop giving your horse drugs. You know, the horse didn’t fail the drug test, you you helped the horse fail the drug test.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m just wondering what it looks like when a horse starts roid raging.
Gideon Resnick: [laughs] Starts running fast, clearly, I guess.
Akilah Hughes: What a day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer, is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.