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The Morning Dispatch: The Last Vaccine Hurdle
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The Morning Dispatch: The Last Vaccine Hurdle

Plus: A grim week for democracy in Hong Kong.

Happy Friday! We hear today is National Cookie Day. We will be participating in National Cookie Day.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Joe Biden on Thursday told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he has asked the White House’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to be one of his administration’s chief medical advisers and that he will ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days after he is sworn into office on January 20. He said the mask policy will be mandatory in federal buildings and on public transportation. “Just 100 days to mask, not forever. 100 days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction,” Biden said in a joint interview with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

  • In a 17-page complaint filed on Thursday, the Justice Department claimed that Facebook illegally reserved at least 2,600 positions for foreign professionals with H1-B visas, effectively displacing equally qualified American workers.

  • The Senate voted along party lines on Thursday to confirm Christopher Waller—an economist nominated by President Trump—to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

  • President-elect Biden officially announced on Thursday his selection of Brian Deese to lead the National Economic Council. Deese worked in the Obama administration on the automotive bailout and the Paris climate agreement, and has spent the last few years at the asset management giant BlackRock.

  • Facebook announced on Thursday that the company will “start removing false claims about [COVID-19] vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts on Facebook and Instagram,” including false claims that vaccines contain microchips or are being tested on people without their consent.

  • Warner Bros. announced on Thursday that the movie studio will simultaneously release all 17 of its 2021 films in theaters and on its online streaming service, HBO Max. 

  • The United States confirmed 209,072 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 11.6 percent of the 1,807,951 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,841 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 276,157. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 100,667 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Getting the Vaccine Message to the People

We’ve said this before, but can’t say it enough: It’s downright miraculous that COVID vaccines are right around the corner. There’s a lot of pain to come yet before that wonderful day when—if all goes to plan—we see the pandemic come to an end in this country in a few months. But if you’d been told in April or so that before the end of the year we’d be well on our way to stamping out the virus, with the only remaining problem being how to get the vaccine we’d invented out of the lab and into people’s arms, you’d likely have waved it off as wishful thinking.

That’s not to say that last hurdle won’t be a challenge. We’re talking about a lot of arms, after all—and two trips to the doctor each. That’d be a tall order for a public health program even if the vaccine hadn’t for months been the subject of a dizzying array of controversies and conspiracies.

In early autumn, epidemiologists clutched their heads in alarm as questions of when the coming COVID vaccine would become available were turned—like so many other elements of the ongoing pandemic—into a political football. President Trump accused vaccine manufacturers and his own FDA of deliberately slow-walking the trial process to prevent him from getting a win before the election; Democrats, in turn, accused the president of trying to rush a half-baked and potentially unsafe drug to market to save his campaign. Public confidence in the vaccine fell 11 points in a month—when Gallup polled the question in September, fully half of respondents said they would not take an FDA-approved vaccine if one were available that day.

And that’s not even to get into the really wild stuff—the theories that, for instance, the vaccine was a ploy by Bill Gates and his cabal of global elites to implant people with microchips to track them with 5G towers, and so on. Such theories, which have rocketed around the internet all year, don’t just do damage to the terminally gullible: By turning the internet, the watering hole of the collective consciousness, into an unnavigable swamp of intermingled truths and lies, they help to breed a sort of numb helpless apathy in pretty much everybody. This is exactly the sort of apathy that a universal vaccination program—which requires you to get off your couch and down to the Walgreens and get a needle stuck in your arm twice in a month—must manage to overcome.

A massive state and federal public health messaging campaign and a population for whom the crisis has been the greatest epidemic emergency in their lifetimes will combine to get us a good way there. But much of the effort will fall to people educating one another within their various human communities. Different people have internalized different reasons why they’re skeptical of or nervous about the vaccine, and not all are equally reassured by seeing a CDC ad on TV.

Encouragingly, these efforts too are well underway. One prominent example this week took place yesterday at an online event hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission*, the policy branch of the Southern Baptist Convention. At the event, theologian Dr. Russell Moore interviewed Dr. Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and the director of the National Institutes of Health, about a host of vaccine-related issues, with a particular eye toward those concerns some Christian and pro-life people are still nurturing.

“Dr. Moore knows Dr. Collins personally,” ERLC chief of staff Brent Leatherwood told The Dispatch, “and we believed that a conversation between them could both demystify the science behind these vaccines and help increase trust in those who are working daily to help us through this pandemic.”

In addition to all the other misinformation everyone else has been struggling through, pro-life types have one more reason to be bewildered: concern that some—but not all—of the vaccine candidates were manufactured using lines of fetal-derived tissue. Concerns of an ethical conflict, thankfully, have been somewhat assuaged—neither Pfizer nor Moderna’s field-leading vaccines rely on such cells in their production. But a whole different set of conspiracy theories that sprung out of this concern are still kicking as well, and are all the more alluring to some given the genuine conversation they resemble.

Speaking to his audience both as a subject-matter authority and a fellow believer, Dr. Collins took pains to answer these sorts of questions. While acknowledging that “everybody has to think about where their own line is,” he laid out the ethical argument advanced by institutions like the Catholic Church over the years—that drugs that make use of cells derived from long-ago abortions are problematic, but permissible to save one’s life or to protect the lives of others—and walked through the differences between the vaccines manufactured using such cells and those which were not.

“If we are called to be agents of healing, and if we are trying to model ourselves after Christ, who spent so much of the time we know about on this earth in healing activities,” Dr. Collins said, “this seems like a pretty good balance … [to] take advantage of what science, through God’s grace, has given us as a means of ending this terrible pandemic that’s taken so many lives.”

The NIH director also urged his audience to view the hard work of sifting truth from falsehood on such important public matters a moral duty: “There’s an awful lot of information floating around, particularly in social media, that frankly doesn’t represent truth, that represents some certain degree of fear and anxiety, and some just frank conspiracies that are pretty outrageous,” he said. “I guess I come back to Philippians 4: ‘Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right … think about such things.’ That would apply really well here.”

And he acknowledged the moments in which even well-intentioned pandemic moves had sometimes led to confusion, as with the naming of the White House’s vaccine operation: “The ‘Warp Speed’ name probably was not the greatest choice … it may have also conveyed that we’re cutting corners. I want to assure you as a scientist, as a physician, as a researcher who’s been in the middle of all this: Since January, we have done nothing to compromise, in even the smallest way, the safety or the efficacy standards for these vaccines.” 

A Bad Week for Hong Kong

Hong Kong is having one of its worst weeks in a six-month period marked by brutal crackdowns on the part of Beijing and its accomplices within the ranks of the city’s leadership. Prominent opposition activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam were handed prison sentences on Wednesday ranging from seven to 13.5 months. The next day, authorities detained Jimmy Lai—a media tycoon and veteran supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement—on charges of fraud without the option of bail.

Wong, Chow, and Lam—all in their twenties—were sentenced after pleading guilty to coordinating a mass demonstration surrounding police headquarters in Hong Kong in opposition to a 2019 extradition bill. The law, which was suspended after protests, would have allowed Hong Kong’s chief executive to extradite criminals wanted for crimes in China back to the mainland. More than 10,000 Hong Kong protesters have been imprisoned since, as the movement grew into a broader call for democratic reform.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping enacted a national security law aimed at stamping out dissent in Hong Kong for good by expanding on the 2019 extradition bill and encroaching on the region’s judicial independence. And early last month, Beijing empowered the Hong Kong government to boot lawmakers in its legislature deemed disloyal. Four were forcibly removed that day and 15 others resigned in solidarity. The arrest and conviction of the pro-democracy movement’s leading figures is the latest hit in a string of efforts to undermine the “one country, two systems” mantra. 

“The Chinese authorities and their Hong Kong adjuncts have made it abundantly clear that they mean business. They rammed through the National Security Law, expelled legislators from the Legislative Council, and have in general taken a hard line,” Fred Rocafort, a legal expert on China and former diplomat, told The Dispatch. “Meanwhile, the sentences handed down to Wong and others demonstrate that the authorities will not hesitate to make examples out of leading figures.”

Wong—a founding member of the Demosisto pro-democracy political party which disbanded in June—released a statement via his lawyers shortly after his sentencing encouraging supporters not to lose momentum. “It’s not the end of the fight. Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protestors, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for [Hong Kong],” he wrote. “Please, take your positions, give support to each other.”

Whether or not the protests against Beijing will persist without key leadership remains to be seen, however. “While some activists are likely to remain undeterred in the face of all this, it is only natural that many Hong Kongers will decide the potential cost of opposing the authorities is too great. In this sense, the chilling effect of the [National Security Law] cannot be overstated,” Rocafort said. “The prospect of being whisked away to the mainland for trial and imprisonment changes the equation for even some of the most committed activists.”

Jimmy Lai, who made his fortune in clothing retail before launching a media company to expose the corruption of Hong Kong and Chinese leaders, will be detained until his court date in April on charges of fraud. His odds of walking free afterward don’t look great—Chief Executive Carrie Lam hand-picked the judge presiding over Lai’s case. 

“The United States Congress has always spoken with one voice in defense of those oppressed by Beijing and in support of freedom, justice and real autonomy for the people of Hong Kong,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “We call on all freedom-loving people around the world to join us in denouncing this unjust sentencing and China’s widespread assault on Hong Kongers.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “appalled” by the recent developments. “The use of courts to silence peaceful dissent is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes and underscores once again that the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fear is the free speech and free thinking of its own people,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Hong Kong’s people should be free to exercise the rights guaranteed to them under the Basic Law; the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their struggle to resist the CCP’s denial of their fundamental rights will stand throughout history as a testament to the human spirit.”

Worth Your Time

  • Tired of scrolling through Facebook posts claiming that COVID-19 is a hoax? What about that one neighbor who constantly rattles on about Bill Gates and his alleged plot to inject all Americans with microchipped vaccines? “Fortunately, the exponents of these conspiracy theories often use the same rhetorical devices, and a familiarity with these arguments will help you to politely articulate the faulty reasoning behind many different forms of misinformation,” writes David Robson in The Guardian. His latest piece provides some tools to better poke holes in a conspiracy theorist’s logic. “If you want to change someone’s mind, you need to think about ‘pre-suasion,’” Robson writes. “Essentially, removing the reflexive mental blocks that might make them reject your arguments.”

  • Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe writes in the Wall Street Journal that the People’s Republic of China “poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II.” He says the intelligence points to an aggressive Beijing with plans to dominate the United States and the world “economically, militarily and technologically,” and he notes the standoff has massive implications for liberty around the globe. “Within intelligence agencies, a healthy debate and shift in thinking is already under way. For the talented intelligence analysts and operators who came up during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Russia have always been the focus,” he writes. “For others who rose through the ranks at the turn of this century, counterterrorism has been top of mind. But today we must look with clear eyes at the facts in front of us, which make plain that China should be America’s primary national security focus going forward.”

  • In the Wall Street Journal, George Mason professor Donald Boudreaux has a moving tribute to his colleague Walter Williams, the economist and public intellectual who died Wednesday at age 84. “A onetime cabdriver who grew up poor in Philadelphia, Walter knew injustice—and understood the way to fight it wasn’t by emoting but by probing and learning,” Boudreaux writes. “He was one of America’s most courageous defenders of free markets, constitutionally limited government and individual responsibility. I will miss him as a friend. The world will miss him as a tireless champion of American values.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Thursday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss whether the election conspiracy theories being circulated by conservative pundits and politicians will end up depressing turnout among GOP voters in Georgia’s January Senate runoffs. Yesterday’s jam-packed episode also features a breakdown of several religious liberty cases, the White House’s alleged pay-for-pardon scheme, the U.S. census case, Attorney General Bill Barr’s special counsel appointment, and HBO’s The Undoing. 

  • In Thursday’s Vital Interests newsletter (🔒), Thomas Joscelyn explains why Trump’s “end the endless wars” rhetoric is out of touch with reality, given the ever-present threat that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban still pose to America. “There is little reason to expect that Biden wants to expand America’s role once again in the post-9/11 conflicts,” Joscelyn writes. “But Trump is making it even more difficult for the Biden team to maintain a small counterterrorism presence in some of the world’s most dangerous jihadist hotspots.”

Let Us Know

Warner Bros.’ announcement about their studio’s movies going directly to HBO Max next year could change the film industry forever.

Post-COVID, will you still pay a premium to watch movies in theaters rather than streaming them at home?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo of Dr. Francis Collins by Michael Reynolds/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Correction, December 4, 2020: An earlier version of this newsletter confused the name of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission with that of another prominent social-conservative institution, the Ethics and Public Policy Center.