This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, while hopes are that we have reached the peak of the second wave, as the number of new infections seems to be slowly diminishing, we continue to lead Europe as the region with the highest rate of infections. Discontentment is growing in Geneva, where strong measures have been taken by the Cantonal government, all the while neighboring Vaud has not followed suit. At the same time, some in France are accusing Geneva’s more permissive approach (relative to France) of facilitating the cross-border transmission of the virus.
Geneva’s UN system has—it was to be expected—not been spared. It must be said it has not been a beacon of transparency. We now know through internal emails and repeated questioning that the WHO has recorded 65 cases among staff at its headquarters in Geneva. And we finally learned that the figures for UNOG now stand at 128 cases at the Palais since March—that’s 4.6% of all employees.
Elsewhere in The G|O, two non-COVID-19 related pieces: one covers new momentum on the climate change front and the other—more sobering—on the persistence of populism in the US after Trump’s defeat.
Laurence Tubiana, the former COP21 grand orchestrator, salutes the Chinese and European renewed push towards decarbonization. Both powers recognize that the future belongs to those who move quickly and decisively toward decarbonization, she writes. In this context, Joe Biden’s announcement that the US will again abide by the COP21 agreement bodes even better. Tubiana will be one of the main speakers at the upcoming Young Activists Summit on 20 November.
In the second piece, former economic adviser to the President of the European Union, Philippe Legrain, writes on Donald Trump’s defeat. They argue that “with Trump gone, populist politicians will not only enjoy less domestic legitimacy; governments will face a higher international price for nationalist stances.”
But back to the briefing and, inevitably, WHO and more COVID-19.
The vaccine exists. But the money doesn't. Well, it does but is just unevenly redistributed
Repeatedly being the bearers of disquieting news is not the most enjoyable part of our trade. While we remain on the whole optimistic, that hope is being measured out in small increments. Despite the incumbent increasing his vote share, Joe Biden did defeat Donald Trump after all. And against low expectations, two promising vaccines are in the final stages of development in record time, giving hope of an effective vaccine.
Yet, if WHO has made it clear that it welcomes the recent Moderna and Pfizer announcements on the efficacy of their vaccines, it has also made it clear that, for the time being, its alliance to secure vaccine supplies for the world's poorest countries is still suffering from a deep financial hole.
During its World Health Assembly last week, WHO indicated for the first time that a lack of resources threatens the project to ensure the global distribution of the vaccine. No announcement of any new donations happened at the Assembly. The organization had to wait for the Peace Forum in Paris last Friday to receive the news that new resources will be allocated to the initiative. Still, they are not seen as enough.
The European Commission, France, Spain, The Republic of Korea, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US$ 360 million to COVAX, the Vaccines Pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.
New contributions bring the total committed to over US $5.1 billion—but an additional US$ 4.2 billion is needed urgently this year, with a further US$ 23.9 billion required in 2021, if tools are to be deployed across the world as they become available.
A Unicef-Covax internal document also points out that the planned vaccine production in 2020-2021 will be tight when compared to aspirational demand. “It is also reasonable to assume that sufficient vaccine supply will be available for widespread global roll-out starting in late 2022, but also possible that annual vaccination or booster doses could be needed,” the Unicef-Covax document states.
Careful dose allocation will be key to maximizing impact. But WHO’s ability to control distribution and allocation is far from a given. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, is not currently part of the Covax facility vaccine portfolio, although the two are currently in talks. And there is always the question of whether countries will allow vaccine doses being produced on their territory to leave it before they have met their need (as we saw with export restrictions on PPE).
The Olympic Movement in search of a vaccine
With so much money at stake and its entire economic model threatened—NBC purchased the broadcasting rights for US$ 1.4 billion—it is no wonder that the IOC is getting jittery about a further postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
According to WHO, the supply of vaccines in the first half of next year, in particular, will be “very tight.” But the IOC—based in Lausanne—has confirmed that it is "in talks" with WHO and the pharmaceutical industry to ensure immunity for athletes and teams for next year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics.
The reality is that Olympic participants and fans in Tokyo are likely to face requirements to be vaccinated to protect the Japanese public.
“In order to protect the Japanese people and out of respect for the Japanese people, the IOC will undertake great effort so that as many (people) as possible — Olympic participants and visitors—will arrive here (with a) vaccine if by then a vaccine is available,” Bach said. “This makes us all very confident that we can have spectators in the Olympics stadium next year and that spectators will enjoy a safe environment.”
WTO to wait for Biden’s inauguration to decide on new director
It looks like the future direction of the WTO will be decided after Joe Biden takes office in January 2021. After a summer-long Director-General selection process, diplomats in Geneva had hoped they had come to an agreement at the beginning of November. After whittling down the list of nominees to two, the leaders of the selection process proposed Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the position. They all agreed that the support for her was far deeper than for the runner-up, South Korean nominee Yoo Myung-hee. Indeed, the Europeans all supported Okonjo-Iweala.
However, an impasse emerged: Donald Trump’s government announced it would not accept Okonjo-Iweala, supporting Myung-hee instead. A meeting scheduled to take place on November 9 to hammer out the decision was postponed indefinitely.
Two of the main ambassadors at the body told The G|O that the most realistic scenario today is that the choice of the new WTO Director-General will be postponed until the new US administration takes office. The hope is that, with Biden in power, the US’ block will be removed, and the consensus around the Nigerian will be universal.
At the age of 66, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was once on the board of the World Bank and was part of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. In her home country, she was finance minister and became known for convincing George W. Bush to forgive a billion-dollar debt. Most recently, she served on the board of Twitter Inc. and is a special envoy for the Covax facility. But her internationalist vision was thought to go against the thinking of the current White House. In addition, Washington said it did not agree with the way the process was conducted.
In practice, however, this means the WTO will have been in a leaderless limbo between September 2020 and February 2021 after the Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo surprised the international community and chose to quit the organization. The former ambassador is now vice-president of PepsiCo, his stated intention to depart early in order to help the WTO ensure a smoother transition has not come to pass.