Vaccine recipients wait to learn if they can still pass on Covid

Researchers think vaccines reduce transmission but are still trying to understand by how much

Hannah Kuchler in New York and Anna Gross in London

Seniors who have already had the coronavirus vaccine meet for lunch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida © Maria Alejandra/REUTERS

With Covid-19 vaccination campaigns advancing around the world, public health officials are still trying to answer the question on the lips of the newly vaccinated: could I still be a danger to people around me?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first guidance for the fully vaccinated this week, saying a growing body of evidence suggests the vaccinated are less likely to have asymptomatic infection — and possibly less likely to transmit the virus. 

Fully vaccinated Americans can now meet each other or people at low risk of Covid-19 in small groups, indoors without masks. The CDC argued that the benefits of reducing social isolation and relaxing measures outweighed the risks — and that more of the vaccine-hesitant might get their shots if they could enjoy these freedoms afterwards. 

Elsewhere in the world, the guidance is less clear. Despite a stellar vaccination programme, the UK remains in lockdown and chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned on Monday that the situation could “turn bad” if the easing of restrictions is rushed. 

“This is incredibly challenging to communicate to people,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “Even though it seems simple, like, ‘Can I do this or not?’ It’s not always a simple answer to that question.”

All of the Covid-19 vaccine trials focused primarily on whether the shots prevented symptomatic disease, which was seen as more important than studying transmission. But given that Covid-19 can be passed on by someone who has contracted the virus but not displayed symptoms, it is now crucial for both individuals and the economy to find out whether the vaccinated can still transmit the virus. 

Logically, experts believe that because the vaccines reduce even mild disease and cut viral load, they must also reduce transmission. But scientists are still reliant on several small studies of varying value, when judging the extent to which vaccination will reduce spread.

Muge Cevik, a researcher at the University of St Andrews, said the evidence was starting to point towards a “meaningful reduction” in transmission. 

“Up until now, the message was, ‘We don’t know how much it reduces infection,’ but I think it’s wrong to say that — the message should be, ‘Yes it will reduce transmission but we don’t know the magnitude,’” she said. 

The first evidence came from monkeys last year. Rhesus macaques were given shots of the BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines and then exposed to the virus. Not only did they not develop symptoms, they showed only “limited” replication of the virus in the upper respiratory tract, which made them less likely to pass it on. 

During large clinical trials, while vaccine manufacturers did not assess the impact of the shots on transmission, some did monitor asymptomatic infections among vaccinated participants.

Oxford/AstraZeneca was unusual in doing diagnostic Covid tests for all UK participants every week. Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said its published data was “good evidence” that the AstraZeneca vaccine reduced all positive tests — whether symptomatic or not — by about two-thirds. 

“It is reasonable to infer that this will correspond to a reduction in transmission, since if there is no virus detectable infection can’t be passed on,” he said. 

Other vaccine makers looked at a portion of their trial. In a subset of 3,000 J&J trial participants, the vaccine appeared to be about 74 per cent effective at stopping asymptomatic infection. Dan Barouch at Harvard’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, who worked on the J&J trial, said this was “very encouraging”.

A box of doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine heads through a US plant on its way to be transported © Timothy D Easley/REUTERS

But the regulator has cautioned that there is not yet enough evidence to be statistically valid. 

Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, said the Food and Drug Administration was right to be cautious because 74 per cent was higher than the overall efficacy rate of 72 per cent in the US.

“That shows the uncertainty, because biologically it has to be lower,” she said. 

Now that more than 300m vaccine doses have been administered globally, researchers are publishing larger studies of “real world” evidence. 

In Israel, which has vaccinated by far the largest proportion of its population, the health ministry found the Pfizer vaccine was 89 per cent effective at preventing infection of any kind, and 94 per cent against symptomatic infection. 

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed. 

Rasmussen cautions that we should take this evidence with “a pinch of salt” while vaccination programmes are still in progress, because it can often get muddied by other factors, such as lockdowns.

However, two UK studies of the Pfizer shot found similar results. A University of Cambridge study of healthcare workers who were regularly tested for Covid-19 showed the number of asymptomatic positive tests dropped by three-quarters as they began to be vaccinated. 

Another from Public Health England found it “effectively prevented” asymptomatic infection in working-age adults. 

Michael Weekes, who co-authored the Cambridge paper, said it showed the vaccine offered “decent protection but it’s not a panacea”. 

“You’ve got two studies that have come to very similar conclusions. That gives it a lot of power,” he said. 

The ultimate real-world evidence will come from studies of people around the vaccinated to see if they get Covid-19. 

In the Panther study from the University of Nottingham, researchers are looking at infection rates among the close contacts of recently vaccinated healthcare workers.

Public health experts are also eager to hear from clinical trials due to publish results in the next few months. 

Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, said the “most rigorous data” will come from the vaccine makers’ follow-up studies of trial participants, with a clear comparison between the vaccinated and placebo groups. 

Pfizer is testing a subset of its trial for antibodies that would not have been elicited by the vaccine to identify asymptomatic infection.

When the new studies land, it will make a “big difference” to the advice public health experts can give to the vaccinated about how to behave, she said. 

“If there is evidence of protection from asymptomatic infection, that would be fantastic news.” 

 Interview with Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury

"Planes Are Safe Places, Even in Corona Times"

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury is critical of Europe's management of the pandemic. He argues that airplanes are safe and that passengers and business travelers will eventually be flying again.

Interview Conducted by Gerald Traufetter und Martin U. Müller

A crew member with a protective face mask: "People want to fly." Foto: Akos Stiller / Bloomberg / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Faury, how often do you fly at the moment?

Faury: I fly about twice a week within Europe and France. Sometimes a little more.

DER SPIEGEL: But then surely in a private jet rather than a commercial airliner?

Faury: Mostly it's scheduled flights. Today, I actually flew in a private jet because Berlin is quite difficult to reach from Toulouse due to the current restrictions on air travel.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you understand why people are afraid to board planes at the moment?

Faury: Of course, I can understand, but I think the fear is unfounded. 

The ventilation on board, the filtration and air exchange, are efficient and safe. 

That's what all kinds of analyses we've done have shown. 

What remains is the problem of droplets when someone coughs or sneezes on the plane. 

That's why there is a requirement to wear a mask. 

In short: Planes are safe places, even in corona times, especially with a mask. 

Studies from renowned institutes, including Harvard, have confirmed this.

About Guillaume Faury

Foto: Frederic Scheiber/ AP

Guillaume Faury, 53, has served as CEO of the European aviation and defense firm Airbus since April 2019. Before that, the French national was the CEO of the company's Airbus Helicopters subsidiary.

DER SPIEGEL: But the passenger numbers show that people are reluctant.

Faury: I don’t believe that. The opposite is true: People want to fly. 

The truth is that the problem lies elsewhere. 

People are limited in their ability to travel – not only by the lack of flights, but especially by the inconsistent quarantine requirements, particularly in Europe. 

In other parts of the world, passengers already started flying again during the Christmas holidays. These trends make us confident.

DER SPIEGEL: What’s your view of the slow vaccination rollout in Europe?

Faury: First of all, it has to be noted: The speed with which effective vaccines have been developed and certified is unprecedented in the history of medicine. 

This is a magnificent scientific and industrial achievement. 

Unfortunately, we are now experiencing the logistical problems of manufacturing, delivery and administration. 

Admittedly, this is complex. But it is also true that we could have managed it better in Europe compared to other countries in the world.

DER SPIEGEL: How important are vaccinations for the aviation industry?

Faury: Even if we didn't have effective vaccines, there would still be other ways of dealing with the pandemic, most importantly the constant testing of travelers – a measure with which we are having good success. 

But in the long run, vaccines are invaluable to the future of our industry. They are highly effective, and I hope they will remain so despite mutations.

DER SPIEGEL: When we met you for an interview in the spring of 2020, the pandemic was just getting underway. 

At the time, you said that people would still want to discover the world by plane in the future. Do you still think that’s the case?

Faury: In the course of a global crisis like this, you of course have to constantly assess the situation and make adjustments as necessary. If you had asked me last autumn, my answer would have been very pessimistic. 

What we heard from business travelers at the time was frightening. Executives at large companies told us: "We will never travel the way we used to.

DER SPIEGEL: The mood in Germany doesn’t seem to have brightened.

Faury: I see it differently. The mood has changed completely. 

Now, the word from the business world is: "We need to fly again and visit our customers.” 

We have reached the limits of what we can do from afar. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for direct contact. 

I am more optimistic about this than I was six months ago.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you the think the number of business trips will increase again?

Faury: Yes, I believe they will. It will take time, but business travel will remain an integral and important part of our daily lives and the development of our economy. 

There’s no other way.

DER SPIEGEL: Does that also apply to private travel?

Faury: Everywhere in the world where passengers have the security of knowing that they can travel without hesitation and there are flights, demand is increasing very strongly. 

After being locked up for a year, people just want to get out. 

The A380 aircraft between Dubai and Britain, for example, are quite full at the moment. 

So we can see that things are picking up.

DER SPIEGEL: So, you think everything will go back to the way it was?

Faury: Corona will cause lasting changes. One trend is that planes have to have internet on board. People want to be connected and make the aircraft cabin their office, perhaps because they have grown accustomed to mobile working from home. 

They might also be inclined to fly less through hubs in order to avoid crammed airports with too many other people, meaning the demand for non-stop flights could increase.

DER SPIEGEL: That would not be a great scenario for your large aircraft.

Faury: There are also opportunities for us. We see the A321XLR, in particular, as a good solution. The aircraft is smaller than conventional long-haul aircraft, but can also cover very long routes. Airlines see this aircraft as a way to transport people on longer routes from smaller airports directly to their destination.

DER SPIEGEL: In which region do you believe a recovery is most likely?

Faury: In countries like China and India, or in Southeast Asia, a growing number of people want to rise into the middle class and travel. The airlines now need certainty so they can ramp up the flight schedule again. People don’t book flights without reliable information. 

Asia, the United States and other parts of the world are better about organizing this than the Europeans. The situation here is very worrying. We see this in our own customers who want to pick up aircraft. 

Flights get cancelled, so sometimes we have to pick up the customers. 

Then they have to go into quarantine, meaning it can easily take three weeks to pick up a new plane. 

Let me be clear about this: The corona measures in Europe are devastating for aviation.

DER SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the coronavirus measures in Germany need to be loosened?

Faury: Finding the right balance isn’t an easy task. But Europe is already playing a very risky game. The damage done to society with the harsh measures sometimes far outweighs the benefits. 

The fact that we wear masks is beneficial because you protect people from transmitting the virus. 

But the closure of businesses in the medium or long term is a threat to our prosperity and competitiveness.

Faury (center) with DER SPIEGEL journalists Gerald Traufetter and Martin U. Müller: "Where we are in 30 years is completely up to us." Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Instead of government aid, you took out a huge loan because of the corona crisis. Can you rule out the possibility that you will soon need public money after all?

Faury: I am always very careful with guarantees. But we believe that we are quite solidly positioned on the liquidity side, which you can see from our financial results last year. As such, I don’t anticipate that kind of situation at this time.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you planning to cut more than the 15,000 jobs you announced last year?

Faury: We experienced a 40-percent drop in production as a result of the pandemic – and that in an area in which we employed around 90,000 people. If you translate that into missing workloads, we would be talking about 35,000 jobs. We have worked hard with our social partners, governments and other stakeholders to minimize the impact of the pandemic on our workforce. 

The result is an adjustment involving 15,000 positions. With the help of government measures like the short-time work (work furlough programs), we have found solutions for 5,000 jobs. 

Currently, about 10,000 jobs that belong to the commercial part of Airbus are still at stake. One thing is certain: We want to avoid having to lay people off.

DER SPIEGEL: Is it helpful to Airbus that Boeing is not only having to battle the consequences of the COVID crisis, but also setbacks with the 737 Max and the 787?

Faury: We are not currently competing for new orders because the airlines are not placing large orders. Instead, we are working to complete orders that have already been placed. We tend to be looking at ourselves at the moment rather than Boeing.

DER SPIEGEL: The two big players are unlikely to remain without competition forever. At what point do you think Chinese manufacturers will begin building aircraft for the Western market?

Faury: They will start with the domestic market first. After all, the airlines there are mostly owned by the state. So, they will introduce the models being developed now and allow the technology to mature in their own country. 

Then they will head for the export market. That certainly won’t be in the first half of the decade, but later. 

We have seen in Russia and Brazil that building an aviation industry isn’t easy. It takes size. But China also has size, and that’s why I believe they can do it. In any case, we are not underestimating them.

DER SPIEGEL: Chinese aircraft manufacturer Comac will obtain certification for its C919 medium-haul jet this year.

Faury: We take Comac and the other Chinese companies very seriously. They are ambitious, and they are catching up technologically. 

But we protect our own inventions and defend our technological leadership. Where we are in 30 years is completely up to us.

An artist's impression of the ZEROe Airbus concept aircraft: "The next generation of aircraft will have virtually no impact on the environment." Foto: Airbus / ABACA / picture alliance

DER SPIEGEL: By then, aviation is supposed to be climate neutral. By 2035 at the latest, you want to have a hydrogen-powered aircraft in the air. Is that realistic?

Faury: There is no alternative to this course. The greatest headwind for aviation is carbon dioxide emissions. Aviation is actually very environmentally friendly, if not for the CO2 emissions – even if they only account for 2 percent of global emissions. That's why we want to be pioneers in this area.

DER SPIEGEL: Jet fuel seems to be harder to replace than fuel for cars.

Faury: The next generation of aircraft will have virtually no impact on the environment. 

Hydrogen is a source of energy that we have gained a great deal of experience with in areas like space travel. 

Hydrogen is becoming a universal energy source both for other means of transport and for a number of industrial processes, like those in the steel industry.

DER SPIEGEL: Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes in battery-powered aircraft. Don’t you?

Faury: We are convinced that the capacity of batteries is many times too low, particularly in the medium and long-distance range. Hydrogen is more suitable.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, there's not much time.

Faury: We are optimistic about that, too. 

Synthetic fuel based on hydrogen derived from renewable sources can already be used in today's engines. In a second step, we are researching electric engines in which fuel cells on board convert the hydrogen into electricity. 

We believe this is technically feasible. Then we would only have to depend on the availability of sufficient hydrogen from renewable sources.

DER SPIEGEL: Climate-neutral aviation in 2050 – can you promise that?

Faury: We are putting everything we have into this. We will still have some conventional aircraft in use then, but more emissions-free planes will be constructed.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Faury, thank you for this interview. 

The Sovietization of the American Press

The transformation from phony "objectivity" to open one-party orthodoxy hasn't been an improvement

Matt Taibbi

I collect Soviet newspapers. 

Years ago, I used to travel to Moscow’s Iszailovsky flea market every few weeks, hooking up with a dealer who crisscrossed the country digging up front pages from the Cold War era. 

I have Izvestia’s celebration of Gagarin’s flight, a Pravda account of a 1938 show trial, even an ancient copy of Ogonyek with Trotsky on the cover that someone must have taken a risk to keep. 

These relics, with dramatic block fonts and red highlights, are cool pieces of history. 

Not so cool: the writing! 

Soviet newspapers were wrought with such anvil shamelessness that it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever read them without laughing. 

A good Soviet could write almost any Pravda headline in advance. 

What else but “A Mighty Demonstration of the Union of the Party and the People” fit the day after Supreme Soviet elections? 

What news could come from the Spanish civil war but “Success of the Republican Fleet?” 

Who could earn an obit headline but a “Faithful Son of the Party”?

Reality in Soviet news was 100% binary, with all people either heroes or villains, and the villains all in league with one another (an SR was no better than a fascist or a “Right-Trotskyite Bandit,” a kind of proto-horseshoe theory). 

Other ideas were not represented, except to be attacked and deconstructed. 

Also, since anything good was all good, politicians were not described as people at all but paragons of limitless virtue — 95% of most issues of Pravda or Izvestia were just names of party leaders surrounded by lists of applause-words, like “glittering,” “full-hearted,” “wise,” “mighty,” “courageous,” “in complete moral-political union with the people,” etc. 

Some of the headlines in the U.S. press lately sound suspiciously like this kind of work:

— Biden stimulus showers money on Americans, sharply cutting poverty 

— Champion of the middle class comes to the aid of the poor

— Biden's historic victory for America 

The most Soviet of the recent efforts didn’t have a classically Soviet headline. 

“Comedians are struggling to parody Biden. Let’s hope this doesn’t last,” read the Washington Post opinion piece by Richard Zoglin, arguing that Biden is the first president in generations who might be “impervious to impressionists.” 

Zoglin contended Biden is “impregnable” to parody, his voice being too “devoid of obvious quirks,” his manner too “muted and self-effacing” to offer comedians much to work with. 

He was talking about this person:

Forget that the “impregnable to parody” pol spent the last campaign year jamming fingers in the sternums of voters, challenging them to pushup contests, calling them “lying dog-faced pony soldiers,” and forgetting what state he was in. 

Biden, on the day Zoglin ran his piece, couldn’t remember the name of his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and referred to the Department of Defense as “that outfit over there”:

It doesn’t take much looking to find comedians like James Adomian and Anthony Atamaniuk ab-libbing riffs on Biden with ease. 

He checks almost every box as a comic subject, saying inappropriate things, engaging in wacky Inspector Clouseau-style physical stunts (like biting his wife’s finger), and switching back and forth between outbursts of splenetic certainty and total cluelessness. 

The parody doesn’t even have to be mean — you could make it endearing cluelessness. 

But to say nothing’s there to work with is bananas. 

The first 50 days of Biden’s administration have been a surprise on multiple fronts. 

The breadth of his stimulus suggests a real change from the Obama years, while hints that this administration wants to pick a unionization fight with Amazon go against every tendency of Clintonian politics. 

But it’s hard to know what much of it means, because coverage of Biden increasingly resembles official press releases, often featuring embarrassing, Soviet-style contortions. 

When Biden decided not to punish Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi on the grounds that the “cost” of “breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies” was too high, the New York Times headline read: “Biden Won’t Penalize Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi’s Killing, Fearing Relations Breach.”

When Donald Trump made the same calculation, saying he couldn’t cut ties because “the world is a very dangerous place” and “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the paper joined most of the rest of the press corps in howling in outrage. 

“In Extraordinary Statement, Trump Stands With Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing.” was the Times headline, in a piece that said Trump’s decision was “a stark distillation of the Trump worldview: remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts, determined to put America’s interests first, and founded on a theory of moral equivalence.” 

The paper noted, “Even Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill expressed revulsion.”

This week, in its “Crusader for the Poor” piece, the Times described Biden’s identical bin Salman decision as mere evidence that he remains “in the cautious middle” in his foreign policy. 

The paper previously had David Sanger dig up a quote from former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who “applauded Mr. Biden for ‘trying to thread the needle here… This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests.’” 

It’s two opposite takes on exactly the same thing. 

The old con of the Manufacturing Consent era of media was a phony show of bipartisanship. 

Legitimate opinion was depicted as a spectrum stretching all the way from “moderate” Democrats (often depicted as more correct on social issues) to “moderate” Republicans (whose views on the economy or war were often depicted as more realistic). 

That propaganda trick involved constantly narrowing the debate to a little slice of the Venn diagram between two established parties. 

Did we need to invade Iraq right away to stay safe, as Republicans contended, or should we wait until inspectors finished their work and then invade, as Democrats insisted?

The new, cleaved media landscape advances the same tiny intersection of elite opinion, except in the post-Trump era, that strip fits inside one party. 

Instead of appearing as props in a phony rendering of objectivity, Republicans in basically all non-Fox media have been moved off the legitimacy spectrum, and appear as foils only. 

Allowable opinion is now depicted stretching all the way from one brand of “moderate” Democrat to another.

An example is the Thursday New York Times story, “As Economy Is Poised to Soar, Some Fear a Surge in Inflation.” 

It’s essentially an interview with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who’s worried about the inflationary impact of the latest Covid-19 rescue (“The question is: Does [it] overheat everything?”), followed by quotes from Fed chair Jerome Powell insisting that no, everything is cool. 

This is the same Larry Summers vs. Janet Yellen debate that’s been going on for weeks, and it represents the sum total of allowable economic opinions about the current rescue, stretching all the way from “it’s awesome” to “it’s admirable but risky.”

This format isn’t all that different from the one we had before, except in one respect: without the superficial requirement to tend to a two-party balance, the hagiography in big media organizations flies out of control. 

These companies already tend to wash out people who are too contentious or anti-establishment in their leanings. 

Promoted instead, as even Noam Chomsky described a generation ago, are people with the digestive systems of jackals or monitor lizards, who can swallow even the most toxic piles of official nonsense without blinking. 

Still, those reporters once had to at least pretend to be something other than courtiers, as it was considered unseemly to openly gush about a party or a politician.

Now? Look at the Times feature story on Biden’s pandemic relief bill:

On Friday, “Scranton Joe” Biden, whose five-decade political identity has been largely shaped by his appeal to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those from his Pennsylvania hometown, will sign into law a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes the biggest antipoverty effort in a generation…

The new role as a crusader for the poor represents an evolution for Mr. Biden, who spent much of his 36 years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy, judicial fights, gun control, and criminal justice issues… Aides say he has embraced his new role… [and] has also been moved by the inequities in pain and suffering that the pandemic has inflicted on the poorest Americans…

You’d never know from reading this that Biden’s actual rep on criminal justice issues involved boasting about authoring an infamous crime bill (that did “everything but hang people for jaywalking”), or that he’s long been a voracious devourer of corporate and especially financial services industry cash, that his “Scranton Joe” rep has been belied by a decidedly mixed history on unions, and so on. 

Can he legitimately claim to be more pro-union than his predecessor? 

Sure, but a news story that paints the Biden experience as stretching from “hero to the middle class” to “hero to the poor,” is a Pravda-level stroke job.

We now know in advance that every Biden address will be reviewed as historic and exceptional. 

It was a mild shock to see Chris Wallace say Biden’s was the "the best inaugural address I have ever heard.” 

More predictable was Politico saying of Thursday night’s address that “it is hard to imagine any other contemporary politician making the speech Biden did… channeling our collective sorrow and reminding us that there is life after grief.” (Really? Hard to imagine any contemporary politician doing that?). 

This stuff is relatively harmless. 

Where it gets weird is that the move to turn the bulk of the corporate press in the “moral clarity” era into a single party organ has come accompanied by purges of the politically unfit. 

In the seemingly endless parade of in-house investigations of journalists, paper after paper has borrowed from the Soviet style of printing judgments and self-denunciations, without explaining the actual crimes.

The New York Times coverage of the recent staff revolt at Teen Vogue against editor Alexi McCammond noted “Staff Members Condemn Editor’s Decade-Old, Racist Tweets,” but declined to actually publish the offending texts, so readers might judge for themselves. 

The Daily Beast expose on Times reporter Donald McNeil did much the same thing. 

Even the ongoing (and in my mind, ridiculous) moral panic over Substack ties in. 

Aimed at people already banished from mainstream media, the obvious message is that anyone with even mildly heterodox opinions shouldn’t be publishing anywhere.

Those still clinging to mainstream jobs in a business that continues to lay people off at an extraordinary rate read the gist of all of these stories clearly: if you want to keep picking up a check, you’d better talk the right talk.

Thus you see bizarre transformations like that of David Brooks, who spent his career penning paeans to “personal responsibility” and the “culture of thrift,” but is now writing stories about how “Joe Biden is a transformational president” for casting aside fiscal restraints in the massive Covid-19 bill. 

When explaining that “both parties are adjusting to the new paradigm,” he’s really explaining his own transformation, in a piece that reads like a political confession. 

“I’m worried about a world in which we spend borrowed money with abandon,” he says, but “income inequality, widespread child poverty, and economic precarity are the problems of our time.”

Maybe Brooks is experiencing the same “evolution” Biden is being credited with of late. 

Or, he’s like a lot of people in the press who are searching out the safest places on the op-ed page, the middle of the newsroom middle, in desperate efforts to stay on the masthead. 

It’s been made clear that there’s no such thing as overdoing it in one direction, e.g. if you write as the Times did that Biden “has become a steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint” (which even those who like and admire Biden must grasp is not remotely true of the legendary loose cannon). 

Meanwhile, how many open critics of the Party on either the left, the right, or anywhere in between still have traditional media jobs? 

All of this has created an atmosphere where even obvious observations that once would have interested blue-state voters, like that Biden’s pandemic relief bill “does not establish a single significant new social program,” can only be found in publications like the World Socialist Web Site. 

The bulk of the rest of the landscape has become homogenous and as predictably sycophantic as Fox in the “Mission Accomplished” years, maybe even worse. 

What is this all going to look like in four years? 

Democracy, China’s way

To crush democracy, China is changing Hong Kong’s political rules

The national parliament has called for sweeping changes

When britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the former colony was far from a proper democracy. 

Its departing leader was a governor sent from London. 

Only one-third of its legislators were directly chosen by the public. 

But at least it had open and free elections. 

Encouraged by Chinese officials, many hoped that, under Chinese rule, it would become much more democratic. 

Some even thought it would inspire the rest of the country. 

There has been little progress on either front. 

Now China is trying to snuff out its democracy altogether.

On March 11th, at the end of its annual meeting in Beijing, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, called for the overhaul of Hong Kong’s election rules. 

Delegates applauded as the resolution passed with 2,895 votes in favour, zero against and one abstention. 

A Chinese official said the aim was to create “a new democratic electoral system suited to Hong Kong’s realities and with Hong Kong characteristics”. 

That is another way of saying that the territory can have as much democracy as the congress itself displayed: an abundance of it, as the Communist Party would claim, or virtually none at all, as was in fact the case.

A few days before the congress began its meeting, a senior Chinese official had already made it clear that, in future, only Chinese “patriots” would be allowed to stand in Hong Kong’s elections, and that to count as patriotic one must support Communist rule in China. 

At the meeting itself, more details began to emerge of how this may work. 

The resolution called for the establishment of a new body to vet candidates standing for election. 

Discussions of this have made clear that no one deemed unpatriotic will pass.

The resolution calls for more power to be given to the Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive. 

The 1,200-member body is already stacked with the party’s supporters. 

It will gain another 300 members—all party loyalists. In 2019 pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in district polls after months of anti-government unrest. 

That would give them control of the 117 seats in the Election Committee that are allocated to district councillors. 

So these seats will probably be given to other, more reliable, people. 

Candidates running for chief executive will need at least 15 supporters from each of the committee’s five sectors. 

That, in effect, will give the most loyal sectors the power of veto.

The committee will also gain a new responsibility, namely filling some of Legco’s seats. 

These will be increased from 70 to 90. 

The five Legco seats that are currently filled by elected district councillors may be allocated another way.

At present, half of Legco’s seats are filled through competitive elections in which the public has a vote. 

The others are chosen by “functional constituencies” comprising business, professional and other groups such as the district councils. 

For the directly elected ones, the boundaries of constituencies may be redrawn and the voting system changed to make it even more likely that pro-establishment politicians will win (the next polls are due to take place in September, but may be delayed because of these developments). 

The resolution called the overhaul “another major step taken by the state to improve” Hong Kong’s legal and political systems following the imposition of a national-security law in the territory last June.

Details of the political changes will now be discussed by the national parliament’s Standing Committee, which will then write them into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. 

Companies in the city will applaud or keep mum. 

Swire, a conglomerate that controls Cathay Pacific, an airline, said the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong was “beneficial to the city’s future as a world-leading business and financial centre”. 

But on March 3rd a prominent Chinese academic wrote that the pro-establishment camp in Hong Kong must prove they are “virtuous patriots” rather than “rubber stamps or loyal garbage”. 

That may prove harder than changing the rules.