Pluralistic: 04 Feb 2022

Today's links

A closeup looking up a gaping pair of nostrils. In each nostril, a medieval Teutonic night stands, brandishing axes and swords, limned in eldritch green light. They are defending the nostril from three invading covid molecules.

A covid vaccine for your airways (permalink)

The covid vaccine picture is awfully confusing. The current vaccines are doing a great job of preventing serious illness (at least, for people who are boosted), but they're not nearly so effective at preventing infection and transmission. What's more, the new variants are more contagious and less likely to cause severe infection, but they also appear to confer less immunity against re-infection:

At the same time, vaccine apartheid continues to reign supreme over the globe: the WTO's vaccine waiver initiative stalled in the face of opposition from Big Pharma and the Gates Foundation, and the world's poorest people are forced to serve as reservoirs and incubators for new variants.

But there's promising news that addresses both of these issues: new vaccines that are royalty free, that offer superior protection and don't require the extreme cold-chain or even the skilled needlework of the mRNA vaccines.

Writing today in her Substack, Katelyn Jetelina writes about two vaccines she describes as "game-changers": CORBEVAX and NVX-CoV2373 (AKA Novavax):

Novavax uses techniques that have been proven out in some flu and HPV vaccines, and can be made rapidly and in bulk in moth cells. It combines a spike protein with "an immune-boosting compound from the soapbark tree," and it had some very promising Phase III trials.

How promising? "An efficacy of 100% against moderate-to-severe disease with the original variant and 90% efficacy overall…highly effective against other variants of concern, like Delta, Beta, and Omicron."

Novavax has already been approved for use in parts of the global south, including India and South Africa; it's close to approval in the US, too (a production snag held up FDA approval).

Then there's CORBEVAX, which was produced by Drs Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez without pharma company backing. It's a project that started 20 years ago, during the first SARS epidemic. Neither the Trump administration nor Biden's have given them real financial support, so they've relied on the philanthropic arm of Tito's Vodka (seriously) and other donors.

CORBEVAX is made in yeast cultures, like the Hepatatis B vaccine – a decades-old technique that's cheap and highly reliable. CORBEVAX's Stage III trials had 50% fewer adverse events than other vaccines, and yielded ">90% vaccine effectiveness and 80% effective against Delta."

Best of all: it's available without royalties – it's "the world's vaccine." It's already been licensed for manufacture in Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Africa and Botswana.

All of that is promising, but the most promising vaccine news I've found involves nasal vaccines, which "put protection exactly where it is needed to fend off the virus: the mucosal linings of the airways, where the coronavirus first lands."

India's Bharat Biotech (makers of Covaxin) have a promising nasal-spray vaccine that can be administered without injection. It's just one of dozens of nasal vaccines in development around the world. The immunologists quoted in Apoorva Mandavilli's NYT story are bullish on them as a booster for primary vaccines.

According to the article, introducing vaccines directly to the airway induces "immune memory cells and antibodies in the nose and throat." That's important because the antibodies created by intramuscular injections don't propagate well to those parts of the body, which may be why vaccines prevent illness, but not infection.

Nasal sprays (and nebulizers, which can deliver vaccines to the entire airway, down to the bronchioles) induce IgA antibodies "that thrive on mucosal surfaces like the nose and throat [and] may wane more slowly."

And here's where it all comes together: Cuba is a biotech powerhouse with five vaccines under development, including a nasal spray. These vaccines are crushing it in Stage III tests. Cuba is ramping up production, on the island and overseas, and supplying vaccines to the whole Global South.

It's a powerful curative to the racist lie – peddled by Big Pharma and its apologists like Howard Dean – that brown people in poor countries are too primitive to make vaccines and so we should let Big Pharma harvest all the gains from publicly funded mRNA research and dribble out vaccines to the 2.6 billion poorest people in the world:

(Image: Jeremy Sutcliffe, Jeremy Sutcliffe, CC BY; MathieuMD, CC BY-SA 3.0, modified)

A vintage editorial cartoon depicting a giant squid labeled 'Railroad Monopoly' with various things being strangled in its tentacles: a ship, a coach, a farmer and his horses, a miner, a telegraph delivery boy, a winemaker, lumberjacks, a produce farmer, etc. The octopus's eyes are the bearded faces of two forgotten railbarons.

Rail monopolies destroyed the American supply chain (permalink)

The rail barons were the original monopolists, whose ability to make or break whole industries based on their parochial needs spurred the first American antitrust laws. For generations, railroads were tightly regulated to ensure resiliency, competition and fairness. Today, the monopolists are back, and their greed has shattered American supply-chains.

The pandemic has seen massive failures in rail service – late deliveries, waves of derailments, huge backlogs. But rail profits have soared, as have the prices of carrying freight. No wonder: in 1980, there were 40 US "Class I" railroads. Today, there are seven.

How did this happen? Blame Carter. And Reagan. And every president since. The Carter administration lit the kindling for the bonfire of regulations and Reagan poured gas on it. In 1980, the dismantling of rail regulation picked up a good head of steam and it hasn't slowed since.

Writing in The American Prospect, Matthew Buck provides an excellent, highly accessible overview of how railroad deregulation made a small number of people – especially the notorious hedge-fund looter Bill Ackman – spectacularly rich, and how those riches were turned into political power to further the removal of the rail industry's brakes.

The rail industry wasn't just a pioneer in 19th century corrupt monopoly, it was also the trailblazer for late 20th century tolerance for monopolies. In the 1980s and 1990s, the DoJ and FTC were still occasionally willing to get out of bed and block a merger or two, but rail was governed by the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which basically slept through both decades. "By the 1990s, STB policy blessed nearly all mergers except those that left only one railroad in a market." You will not be amazed to learn that "a 2018 study of railroad mergers from 1983 to 2008 was unable to find that mergers improved efficiency."

All this started under Carter (never forget that Carter was a milder version of Reagan, the way GW Bush was a junior-league Trump). In 1980, Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act, which ended the regulation of railroad freight prices by the Interstate Commerce Commission. This allowed the railroads to once again pick the winners, by offering preferential freight prices to the biggest companies, thus pricing the smaller competitors out of the market (no coincidence that this period saw the rise of big-box stores like Walmart).

The law also ended the railroads' duty to provide service on "unprofitable" routes, effectively choking off whole regions and leaving them to wither and die. By 2008, the railroads had abandoned more than 40% of their routes.

Today, the remaining Big Railroad companies have divided up the country into noncompeting territories. Two companies – CSX and Norfolk Southern – dominate the east-of-Chicago trade. West of Chicago, there's another duopoly run by Union Pacific and BNSF. North-south rail is controlled by three companies. Most train stations have only one railroad servicing them.

The railroads haven't just hiked their rate-cards, they've also hiked their hidden fees, doubling their revenues from "demurrage and accessorial" fees – these are the rail equivalent of airline baggage upcharges.

But most of all, railroads have implemented "Precision Scheduled Railroading" (PSR), a just-in-time system that saw mass closures of freight facilities and huge staff reductions – since deregulation the rail industry went from 500,000 jobs to 130,000 jobs. Much of these staff reductions involved closing union shops and and replacing well-paid workers with low-paid workers who have fewer on-the-job rights.

This was good business for the railroads, kicking off decades of big dividends and stock buybacks: $196b since 2010 – more than the companies have spent actually maintaining their infrastructure.

But this is bad business for the rest of us. Right from the start, PSR created shipping delays and losses. Railyard accidents shot up, and with them, worker fatalities. Derailments soared. People died.

The number of usable track-miles in America plummeted. Productivity – driven by layoffs and service cuts – leveled off when there weren't any workers or routes left to cut.

That was before the pandemic. Today, the American rail system has been cut to the bone, and it represents one of the weak links in the US supply chain. The system experiences bottlenecks at every point: loading, unloading, delivery – not to mention all the cargo that disappears overboard when the trains derail while traversing under-maintained tracks.

Congress and the GAO are pushing to re-regulate the rail companies, leaning on their notionally still-extant common carrier obligations. But it seems to me that the medicine the rail companies really need is the same stuff that worked in the 19th century: breakups.

Not just for the sake of a robust supply-chain, either. America can't transition to a zero-carbon economy with trucks. Freight-trains are far more fuel-efficient, easier to electrify, and far safer than trucks.

Railroad deregulation made the industry far more profitable than it had been since the days of the robber-barons – and it made America as a whole poorer, and more vulnerable. It is a classic capitalist success story, wherein profits are privatized and losses are socialized.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Bulgarian MPs wear Guy Fawkes mask for ACTA session

#5yrsago Mobile recharging station operators in India sell tens of thousands of women’s phone numbers to stalkers

#1yrago Stop the "Stop the Steal" steal

#1yrago Organic fascism

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla