Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on the years of “extraordinary science” that led up to the new COVID-19 vaccines:
Much of the news about vaccines to combat the pandemic emphasizes speed: a “race” to approval, “Operation Warp Speed” and the truly record-breaking timelines. But speed is not the only remarkable aspect of the process that will soon result in vaccines reaching tens of millions of Americans. The first two that are expected to receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, from Pfizer and Moderna, rely on an extraordinary advance in technology, never before used on such a scale, with great promise for the future, and some uncertainties.
In the past, vaccines were largely based on an inactivated or weakened form of a pathogen that was used to train the body’s immune system to fight an infection. Such vaccines have been remarkably successful in fighting diseases such as measles and polio, but they have also taken many years and sometimes decades to develop.
By contrast, the pair of new vaccines rely on a tiny piece of synthesized genetic material known as messenger RNA. In nature, mRNA serves to convey instructions inscribed in DNA and deliver them to the protein-making parts of a cell. The new vaccines use the synthesized mRNA to deliver instructions to the cell to produce the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to latch on to a cell and infect it. When the spike proteins are produced by the cell - on instruction from the mRNA - they then train the body’s immune system to go after them.
Reaching this point is the culmination of many years of work by scientists, often outside the limelight. As The Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson reported Monday, scientists have known since 1961 about mRNA, but exploiting it for medicine was a complex task. One of the early problems was that, when injected, it could cause an inflammatory reaction. But Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, working at the University of Pennsylvania, figured out in 2005 how to modify the mRNA so that the body did not react with inflammation, overcoming a key hurdle and paving the way for today’s vaccines. A second hurdle that vexed scientists was how to fortify the fragile mRNA particles for delivery to the cell. The solution was to encase it in small bubbles of fat known as lipid nanoparticles.
One of the most promising outcomes of the research is the development of nucleic acid-based “platforms” that may be reused to design vaccines for different diseases, starting as soon as the genetic sequence of a pathogen is known, and also using processes that are scalable and reproducible for rapid response to an outbreak.
So far, clinical trials suggest that the vaccines are safe and provide protection from covid-19, but longer-term monitoring of those who get the vaccine is essential. How long will the immunity last? Are there unknown side effects, in particular for people with immune system disorders? Fortunately, other vaccines using more traditional methods also are nearing readiness. Given the catastrophic scope of the pandemic, every vaccine that works will be needed, down to the very last dose.
The Houston Chronicle on the legacy of Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier:
In his 1979 book about the pilots who would become the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space program, author Tom Wolfe introduced an archetype for the sort of courage and competence that it would take to get America to the moon.
It was what Wolfe called “the right stuff,” the substance of uniquely American heroes.
Travelers heard it in the folksy voice of the pilot “that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy.’”
Or the announcement that prepares passengers for an emergency landing by telling them, “We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landing gears’re not … uh … lockin’ into position when we lower ’em.”
An audience on the verge of panic and terror is somehow reassured by the laconic, aw shucks monologue of someone who sounds as though he has never faced a challenge he couldn’t overcome with skill, knowledge and that dash of daring that would seem arrogant if it weren’t saving lives.
“It was,” Wolfe wrote, “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
Yeager’s death on Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 97 is yet another passing from what has become known as the Greatest Generation, the men and women who fought in World War II and came home to help build the nation into an economic and technological force that would eventually extend into outer space.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Yeager’s death “a tremendous loss to our nation.”
“Gen. Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age,” Bridenstine said in his statement.
A fighter ace who shot down five German planes in a single day and 13 overall during the war, Yeager was already something of a legend when he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1947.
As an Air Force captain, he piloted a Bell Aircraft X-1 to a speed of 700 mph, breaking the sound barrier at a time when some feared the shock waves would destroy the aircraft.
The accomplishment would lead the way to other major aeronautical achievements, including the space program and the lunar landing.
A West Virginia native who joined the Air Force with only a high school education, Yeager epitomized the American ideal of succeeding through grit and determination.
“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote in his 1985 memoir. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”
It is that combination of confidence, calm and humility that Americans so admire from heroes such as Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell bringing his crew back from disaster in space or Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ditching a crippled US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River with all 155 on board surviving.
Yeager set the standard for all who followed.
“In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal,” Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young said at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager in August 2006.
As Americans face a harsh winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be good to think of those humble heroes who embraced the dangers and sacrifices to take on the task of getting things done to “fly another day.” That’s the right stuff.
The Chicago Tribune on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new rules on flight companion animals:
When you board a commercial airliner, you know there are certain risks that go with this mode of transportation. You may be placed next to someone with a squalling infant, or behind a traveler who insists on reclining, or alongside an overly talkative stranger - hopefully wearing a tight-fitting mask. The plane may sit on the tarmac for hours waiting for takeoff or hit stomach-churning turbulence once it does. Most air travelers learn take these possible outcomes in stride.
But miniature horses? Turtles? Monkeys? Potbellied pigs? Humans have brought (or tried to bring) all sorts of animals on flights, claiming they are needed for psychological purposes. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, the number of “emotional support animals” on flights rose by a whopping 81%.
Airlines have tried to get control. Delta Air Lines drew up a voluminous list of critters that are not allowed, which - you will be relieved to know - include goats, pigs, spiders, rats, snakes and lizards. A United Airlines customer was refused when she tried to bring aboard a peacock.
But plenty of beasts are allowed on board, and the problems associated with them have multiplied. The Association of Flight Attendants attests that these companions “have been known to bite passengers and Flight Attendants, urinate, defecate, cause allergic reactions and encroach on the space and comfort zone of other passengers who have purchased tickets.” One flight attendant suffered facial cuts from a pit bull.
Emotional support animals, it should be emphasized, are distinct from service animals - which are usually canines and are thoroughly trained to perform crucial tasks for people with disabilities, such as guiding blind people around obstacles and alerting deaf people to important sounds, such as smoke alarms or doorbells.
The Americans with Disabilities Act specifically mandates that these dogs be permitted to accompany their owners in places “where members of the public are allowed to go.” Emotional support animals are supposed to provide comfort and reassurance to people who need it, a function the ADA doesn’t recognize as essential.
Some passengers, believe it or not, have claimed pets as service animals merely because they like having them along or because they don’t want to pay a fee to check them as cargo. Under federal regulations, airlines have had to accommodate anyone who can produce a doctor’s note affirming the traveler’s need. Websites make it easy to obtain the required documentation. One company promises “Instant ESA Letters - Same Day - Only $49” and attests that “almost anyone can have an ESA.”
On Wednesday, though, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules, noting that the proliferation of these creatures has led to “incidents of misbehavior by emotional support animals” and “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.”
Going forward, airlines will be obligated to let passengers bring their service dogs - and only dogs - without paying a fee. Those include “psychiatric service animals.”
You want to bring Tabby the cat in a carrier? Fine, if she will fit under a seat, though it will cost you. All non-service animals may be classified as pets, which their owners may be able to ship as cargo for a fee. Airlines also may require passengers to submit documentation for their service animals at least 48 hours in advance of the date of travel. But those passengers will now be allowed to check in online instead of in person.
This new policy will let airlines manage their operations in ways they think best to contain costs, plan ahead, reduce hazards and protect the interests of all passengers. And it minimizes federal interference in their business.
As DOT pointed out, “airlines may choose to transport other species of animals, such as cats, miniature horses, and capuchin monkeys, that assist individuals with disabilities in the cabin for free pursuant to an established airline policy.” If an airline is willing to make extra accommodations, that will be its prerogative, and customers can choose accordingly.
But for the most part, the new rule will help ensure the great majority of travelers a safer, more sensible flying experience. As Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants union, said in January when DOT announced it would revise the rules, “The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end.”
The Wall Street Journal on what should be included in another COVID-19 relief bill:
Both parties in Washington seem intent on passing another Covid relief bill this month, but it matters what’s in it and especially how it’s paid for. Republicans above all need to repurpose the unused funds from the Treasury backstop for the Federal Reserve’s 13(3) pandemic lending facilities.
The two sides are focusing on something close to $900 billion, which is much more than needed given the imminent arrival of Covid-19 vaccines. But at least that’s down from the Chuck Schumer-Nancy Pelosi demand of $2.2 trillion. The Speaker last week came off that attempt at political extortion, proving that it had been a gambit to prevent a deal before the election.
The Speaker figured the lack of a deal would hurt the GOP, and she even refused President Trump’s pre-election offer of $1.8 trillion. She got too politically greedy. Voters decided to slash her credit-card limit by reducing her House majority and giving the GOP a chance to keep its Senate majority in the two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5.
Senate Republicans have offered a bill for somewhere north of $500 billion that would be an ample bridge to the vaccine. It would extend jobless benefits for gig workers not covered by regular unemployment benefits. It would provide a second round of paycheck protection loans for small businesses hurt by shutdowns. And it includes tens of billions for Covid-related health care such as building stockpiles of medical supplies, as well as $31 billion for vaccines and therapeutics.
Even better is what it leaves out. There’s no repeat of the $1,200 checks to most Americans, most of whom never lost their job or are re-employed. There’s also no direct aid for profligate states, though the states would benefit from the other payments, including for child care and schools. No doubt Democrats will demand more in negotiations, most of which is intended to help the public unions that run Illinois, New York and California.
But the most significant planks of Mitch McConnell’s GOP proposal are the “offsets” to finance it. The bill would redirect $140 billion in unspent funds from the March Cares Act. More important, it would re-obligate the $429 billion in Cares Act money that had been allocated to backstop the Federal Reserve’s 13(3) pandemic lending facilities.
The Fed recently returned this money to the Treasury at Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s request. The money was intended to prevent a financial meltdown in the scary early days of the pandemic, and it did its job. Markets that were frozen in late March had mostly healed by June and now are in good shape with more than enough liquidity. The mere presence of the facilities seems to have reassured markets as only $25 billion was used for loans or other purposes.
The problem is that the Fed returned the money only grudgingly, and the Biden team wants to return it. Worse, they believe Treasury can legally hand it back to the Fed as soon as Janet Yellen is confirmed as secretary. Talk about a moral and political hazard.
Senate Democrats last week pounded Mr. Mnuchin because he dared to recall the money. Sherrod Brown, who would run the Banking Committee in a Democratic Senate, berated him and claimed he is “trying to sabotage our economy on the way out the door.”
Former Elizabeth Warren aide Bharat Ramamurti, who is now on the Covid-19 Congressional Oversight Commission, recently tweeted what has become the new Democratic Party line: “The CARES Act bars the Treasury from making ‘new’ investments in Fed lending programs at year-end. It doesn’t say the Fed programs must stop making new loans or purchases at year-end. Mnuchin’s decision to end the programs was purely discretionary.”
This willfully misreads the bill, as Congress intended the special facilities to expire on Dec. 31. The hilarious irony here is that when President Trump and the Fed asked for the money in March, Democrats denounced it as a “slush fund.” Sen. Warren tweeted in March: “Trump wants our response to be a half-trillion dollar slush fund to boost favored companies and corporate executives.” She still voted for it. Joe Biden also slammed the Fed programs as a “$500 billion slush fund for corporations with almost no conditions.”
Now they claim it’s essential to save the economy that is recovering fast without it. That may have something to do with the election results that could limit the prospects of a multi-trillion-dollar spending spree next year. Democrats want the Fed cash as a substitute, especially since it can use its borrowing power to leverage the funds by five or 10 times.
The Yellen Treasury could also insist on policy mandates on loans such as climate rules, wage demands, and race and gender quotas. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell isn’t likely to object to Ms. Yellen’s requests if he has any desire to be reappointed for a second term starting in early 2022.
A Covid bill should be limited to easing genuine hardship while doing the least amount of new harm. Using the $429 billion in Fed money to finance the former is a fair trade.
The Guardian on Brexit trade talks resuming:
Britain’s departure from the EU under Boris Johnson with – or without – a free trade deal will dim prospects for the UK next year. At best the prime minister will secure a deal at the last minute that eliminates tariffs on trade. There will be disruption, price hikes, protests and perhaps a clash on the seas. Whatever the losses, the prime minister thinks they will evaporate in the sun-filled freedom to depart from the EU’s regulatory rulebook. For all the talk of greater state intervention, Mr Johnson has not changed his spots. We have a rightwing government with a strong ideological commitment to take the country back to where Margaret Thatcher left it.
That means restoring the executive to pre-eminence by curbing the judiciary, undoing devolution and installing cronies in powerful positions. The country ought to expect more squeezing of the poor. Ministers meanwhile seem untroubled by the idea that business elites entering England should be exempt from quarantine rules that force the rest of us to self-isolate. Aside from bromides, the government offers little to the jobless in the north of England, where the Institute for Public Policy Research (North) says unemployment is at its worst since the mid-1990s.
This is not just out of nostalgia for the Thatcher age, when greed was good. The former premier was genuinely convinced that economic growth and full employment were wrong if brought about through government action. Mr Johnson is of the same mind. He doesn’t want Britons to rely on “Uncle Sugar the taxpayer” and get addicted to the sweet rush of a compassionate response. A key belief in free-market societies is that they reward the industrious and punish the idle. In a slim 2012 manifesto for the future of Britain, entitled Britannia Unchained, Mr Johnson’s home, foreign and trade secretaries sang from a Thatcherite songbook blaming the UK’s low productivity on Britain’s workforce who were “among the worst idlers in the world”.
Until Thatcherism, Conservative governments were predominantly pragmatist and were for the preservation of the country’s existing institutions more than their reform. Leaving the EU is a major reversal of a long-term historical trend rather than a consolidation of advances made. Mrs Thatcher’s fingerprints can be found over Brexit. She insisted 20 years ago, in her book Statecraft, that Britain’s economic interests would not be damaged if the UK were to quit Europe. Once a true believer in European integration – she signed up to the Single European Act in 1986 and took the pound into the exchange-rate mechanism – her apostasy was breathtaking. But she was never wrong in the eyes of Eurosceptic headbangers and rightwing populists who now have their hands on the tiller of the Tory party. Mr Johnson knows this motley crew well, because he was – until recently – their backbench leader.
There are few historical situations in which the rigid application of a centralised, free-market approach and the suppression of the state as well as the links to friendly neighbours would be less appropriate than in present-day Britain. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to develop reliable EU-wide supply chains for medical products. The employment shock that accompanied lockdowns is a challenge only the government can meet in substantial measure. And the rise of China as a technological leader requires not just more active industrial strategies but cross-country collaboration. There will also have to be concerted international cooperation on climate, data privacy and tax havens.
Like his prime ministerial forerunner Lord Palmerston, Mr Johnson perhaps thinks that the country has “no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal.” If the prime minister has to rely on Germany’s Angela Merkel to get an EU-UK trade deal over the line then that is a worrying intimation of the lonely hand in global politics we may have to play for years to come. Only the future will tell whether Britain will eventually be better off on its own, rather than deeply enmeshed in an international bloc, trying to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. What can be assured is that few things will run smoothly if Britain acts like a rogue state on the European stage.
The Los Angeles Times on new trials for defendants convicted by non-unanimous juries:
In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires that a jury must be unanimous in convicting a defendant of a serious crime. A lot of Americans - including those who have seen the classic film “12 Angry Men,” in which a lone holdout convinces other jurors to acquit a defendant - probably thought that was already the rule everywhere. But two states, Louisiana and Oregon, had allowed convictions by a non-unanimous jury, as had the territory of Puerto Rico.
That changed when the court ruled in favor of Evangelisto Ramos, who had been convicted of murdering a woman in Louisiana by a 10-2 vote of a state jury. On Dec. 2, a lawyer for another Louisiana man convicted by a non-unanimous jury asked the court to make the Ramos decision retroactive. It must do so if it doesn’t want to tarnish its own legacy.
The Ramos decision was a landmark case, displacing a fractured 1972 decision in which the court had seemed to suggest that the Constitution required conviction by a unanimous jury in federal trials but not state trials.
Writing for the court in April, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch explained that as a matter of history the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the 6th Amendment was understood to require a unanimous vote for conviction. That makes sense: It’s easier for a jury to ignore the requirement for guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if a majority of the panel can ignore objections by one or two members.
Gorsuch also noted that when Louisiana adopted a provision for non-unanimous juries in 1898, one objective was to make it possible for Black jurors to be outvoted. That history is sadly relevant to the case that was argued Dec. 2. Thedrick Edwards, a Black man, was convicted of armed robbery, kidnapping and rape by a jury that contained only one Black juror - who voted for acquittal on all of the charges.
You would think that Edwards would be automatically entitled to a new trial after the court’s decision in April. But under the court’s precedents, decisions establishing new rules - even those rooted in the Constitution - aren’t generally retroactive in cases like this one.
However, the court has said that decisions involving new procedural rules can be applied retroactively if they involve “the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.” André R. Bélanger, the lawyer for Edwards, told the justices that they could decide that the Ramos decision involved just such a “watershed rule.”
Alternatively, Bélanger said, the court could decide that the Ramos decision didn’t announce a new rule but restored the “full measure” of the 6th Amendment. Either way, he said, the Ramos decision should apply retroactively.
Bélanger also made the case for his client in simpler terms. He asked: “Why should the 6th Amendment mean something less to Mr. Edwards” than to other defendants?
Some justices wondered about the number of new trials that might be necessary if Ramos were applied retroactively. (Edwards’ lawyer said that the maximum number in Louisiana would be 1,600 and that the criminal justice system could handle the burden.) But justice shouldn’t be a numbers game.
As Justice Elena Kagan noted, the court in the Ramos case concluded that “if you haven’t been convicted by a unanimous jury, you really haven’t been convicted at all.” But defendants such as Edwards stand convicted despite that decision. That is fundamentally unfair.
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