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Boris, Brexit And That Petty Claim Of Vaccine 'Victory'

Britain's race to be the first deploy the vaccine may be an attempt to whitewash their initial disastrous handling of this pandemic — not to mention the debacle of leaving the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a vial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine Covid-19 candidate vaccine
Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a vial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine Covid-19 candidate vaccine
Eugenia Tognotti


TURIN — What is there to say? Let's give the UK and its Prime Minister Boris Johnson the satisfaction of being the first country to have approved a COVID-19 vaccine and to start mass inoculation. The news broke on Wednesday, when the UK government announced that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been fully approved, beating even the US across the finishing line, and the country would start to deploy it within days.

The announcement was accompanied by the kind of enthusiastic nationalism and triumphalism that we had expected, with Brexit less than a month away. After all, just a couple of weeks ago, it emerged that the UK government had also unsuccessfully tried to add themselves to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine under development.

Alok Sharma, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, declared this to be a historic event on Twitter on Wednesday. He said that the British vaccine approval will go down "as the day the UK led humanity's charge against the disease." He and other UK ministers were painting this as a national, British narrative — a D-Day of sorts — not a European and transatlantic achievement. An understandably outraged German ambassador to the UK pointed this out in a tweet, asking why it was so difficult to recognize the development as a great international effort and success. After all, the vaccine was produced by a US and a German company founded by migrants of Turkish origins.

But in this story – in which politics, medicine, science, the pharmaceutical industry and many other strands are all intertwined – the voice of European cooperation is drowned out by the Brexiter voice of "xenophobia and petty nationalism," as the former Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis said. Adonis also confirmed his opinion by tweeting: "Pitiful watching Hancock & Johnson claim that Brexit means we are getting the vaccine faster. Like Trump claiming he had won the election."

This isn't some race among nations for who can claim victory. Each country must decide how to roll out the vaccines by themselves. Italy, for example, is waiting until early January to deploy a vaccine. Speaking to Parliament on Wednesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza rightly called for caution, reminding Italian MPs that no vaccine has received approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) or the US Food and Drug Administration so far. In unusually harsh tones, the EMA made it clear that its approval procedure is longer and more thorough than the British one, saying it requires more evidence and checks.

British authorities have come out to justify their coup d"état

Of course, the British authorities have come out to justify their coup d"état, saying that British regulatory body, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has conducted rigorous clinical studies and extensive data analysis for months. Yet some doubts still remain about the UK fast-tracked vaccine's safety, quality and efficacy, considering that the decision to release it was taken as part of an ultra-fast emergency approval process, which allowed the MHRA to temporarily authorize the vaccine just ten days after beginning to review data from large-scale studies.

How important is it, we should ask ourselves, that the first country in the world to give the green light to a COVID-19 vaccine is outside of the EU? What effect will this have in helping the British population forget its disastrous management in the initial phases of the pandemic?

The spokesman of the European Commission, the EU executive, explained that the EMA procedure is the most effective regulatory mechanism to guarantee all European citizens get access to a safe and effective vaccine because it is based on further evidence. An extraordinary meeting will be held in the next few days to approve the wider EU distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. We can only hope that it isn't coming this fast as a direct response to pressure from the British government's announcement — nothing could be riskier at such a crucial time.

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Climate Change Is Real, But It's Wrong To Blame It For Every Flood Or Fire

A closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related emergencies. It is important to raise climate change awareness, but there's a risk in overstating its role in every natural disaster.

photo of a small red car buried in sand

A car is buried last week in the sand during severe flooding in Volos, Greece

© Imago via ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski

Updated on Oct. 4, 2023 at 4:05 p.m


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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