Sunday, May 31, 2020

China and the Rhineland Moment

America and its allies must not simply accept Beijing’s aggression.

Great struggles between great powers tend to have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences becomes obvious to nearly everyone.

In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, “all the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.” In 1936 Germany provoked another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill was left to warn that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Analogies between these past episodes and China’s decision this week draft a new national security law on Hong Kong aren’t perfect. Hong Kong is a Chinese port, not a faraway foreign one. Hong Kong’s people have ferociously resisted Beijing’s efforts to impose control, unlike the Rhineland Germans who welcomed Berlin’s. And the curtailment of freedom that awaits Hong Kong is nothing like the totalitarian tyranny that Joseph Stalin imposed on Warsaw, Budapest and other cities.

But the analogies aren’t inapt, either. Beijing has spent the better part of 20 years subverting its promises to preserve Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. Now it is moving to quash what remains of the city’s civic freedoms through a forthcoming law that allows the government to punish speech as subversion and protest as sedition. The concept of “one country, two systems,” was supposed to last at least until 2047 under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now China’s rulers have been openly violating that treaty, much as Germany openly violated the treaties of Locarno and Versailles. 

And again, alarm bells quiver.

For years, Donald Trump’s comments on China have swung between the truculent and the obsequious. But beneath the president’s mental foam, the administration has undertaken a sober rethink of the U.S. strategic approach to China, the outlines of which are described in a new interagency document quietly released by the White House last week. 

Gone from this new vision are the platitudes about encouraging China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in a “rules-based order.” Instead, Beijing is described, accurately, as a habitual and aggressive violator of that order — a domestic tyrant, international bully and economic bandit that systematically robs companies of their intellectual property, countries of their sovereign authorities, and its own people of their natural rights.

“Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not offer compromises in response to American displays of goodwill, and that its actions are not constrained by its prior commitments,” the report reads. “We acknowledge and respond in kind to Beijing’s transactional approach with timely incentives and costs, or credible threats thereof.”

A critic might note that this description of China’s behavior sounds a lot like Trump’s. Sort of, except that the comparison trivializes the scale of China’s abuses and neglects the breadth and longevity of its challenge. A Biden administration will be confronted with the same unpleasant facts about a geopolitical adversary that seeks not only to dominate its region but also dethrone liberal democracy as the dominant political model of the 21st century.

All of which makes the Hong Kong crisis so consequential. Beijing almost certainly chose this moment to strike because it calculated that a world straining under the weight of a pandemic and a depression lacked the will and attention to react. On Friday, Trump said he would strip Hong Kong of its privileged commercial and legal ties to the U.S. But that punishes the people of Hong Kong at least as much as it does their rulers in Beijing.

What’s a better course for the U.S.? A few ideas:

Sanction Chinese officials engaged in human-rights abuses in Hong Kong under the Global Magnitsky Act. Upgrade relations with Taiwan and increase arms sales, including top-shelf weapons’ systems such as the F-35 and the Navy’s future frigate. Re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement as a counter to China’s economic influence. (This won’t happen in a Trump administration, but should in a Biden one.) Publicly press all G-7 countries to stop doing business with telecom-giant Huawei as a meaningful response to the Hong Kong law.

One other idea is now being explored by Britain, the former colonial power. Give every Hong Kong person an opportunity to easily obtain a U.K. residency card, even a passport. As Tom Tugendhat, the chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and founder of its China Research Group, told me on Thursday, doing so would “right a wrong done when the U.K. removed the status in the 1980s. After a century of rule, Britain has obligations.” A future American president who believes in the value of immigration could join that effort, in the same way we helped Hungarian refugees and Vietnamese boat people.

If all this and more were announced now, it might persuade Beijing to pull back from the brink. In the meantime, think of this as our Rhineland moment with China — and remember what happened the last time the free world looked aggression in the eye, and blinked.

Friday, May 22, 2020

FT coronavirus tracker can now compare 6 countries in one go

I compared the countries which imposed the lock-down early on vs those which did not.


Worldometer  data from May 22, 2020 

Early Lock-down
Deaths /1M

From the interview with epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch here:      
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What do you think of Sweden’s more laissez-faire approach?

Marc Lipsitch: I think it’s clearly killing more people than the neighbors. Having said that, I think that we’re almost all moving in that direction and that hopefully we can learn something from Sweden about what doesn’t work. But I think everybody is getting tired of being under restrictive policies and, I mean, Massachusetts so far has not reopened, but most states in the United States have begun to reopen and I think are heading in that direction. I think Sweden has, at great cost to themselves, demonstrated to the world that that’s costly.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

President Trump, the optimist

Is this what president Trump’s scientific advisers are telling him?   Or he misunderstood them?

 Q    So — but how important do you believe a vaccine is to getting out of this?  And what do you say to those that — you know, this growing anti-vaccine —

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests.  This is going to go away without a vaccine.  It’s going to go away, and it’s — we’re not going to see it again, hopefully, after a period of time.  You may have some — some flare-ups and I guess, you know, I would expect that.  Sometime in the fall, you’ll have flare-ups maybe.  Maybe not.  But according to what a lot of people say, you probably will.  We’ll be able to put them out.  You may have some flare-ups next year, but eventually, it’s going to be gone.  I mean, it’s going to be gone.

You know, there are some viruses and flus that came, and they went for a vaccine, they never found the vaccine, and they’ve disappeared.  They’ve never shown up again.  They got — they die too, like everything else.  They die too.

And so, whether we do or not, I think great progress is being made by Johnson & Johnson, by Oxford, and some others — NYU, I see, is very advanced.  But if you don’t get it, this is going to go away at some point.

Q    Mr. President, what evidence have you seen that this is going to go away without a vaccine?

THE PRESIDENT:  I just rely on what doctors say.  They say it’s going to go — that doesn’t mean this year, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be gone, frankly, by the fall or after the fall.  But eventually, it’s going to go away.  The question is will we need a vaccine?  At some point, it will probably go away by itself.  If we had a vaccine, that would be very helpful.  I’d be very happy to have a vaccine.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Corona chronicles

  Letters to the Editor , Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2020

Regarding Israel’s coronavirus is on the decline: Lockdown, Mother Nature or math?(May 6), “Government action had nothing to do with the country’s success in the battle against the novel coronavirus, according to MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem).”

The assertion by MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem) that “government action had nothing to do with the country’s success in the battle against the novel coronavirus” is sheer nonsense.

Israel has 16,314 cases and 238 deaths with the population of 9.2 million, so it has 27 deaths per million population which is ten times less than Sweden has per million.

I just cannot imagine that Israel could tolerate 2,380 deaths, which would approach the number of deaths in the Yom Kippur war.

How to explain such numbers? Israel imposed strict restrictions early on and a lockdown at the very beginning of the exponential curve. I believe that it helped that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has Master of Science degree from MIT, whereas Boris Johnson studied humanities at Oxford and Trump has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton school – so Netanyahu was much more receptive to the scientists’ advice.

In addition, the health care providers (Maccabi for instance) monitors remotely every mildly infected person three times a day.


Thursday, May 7, 2020

Victory in Europe Day, May 7-9,1945

Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Princess Margaret

Marshal Zhukov (June 24) 

The Russians would not for 44 years broadcast the 1966 interview with Marshal Zhukov, the man who along with Winston Churchill is most to be thanked for defeating the Nazis in WWII.  He had saved the USSR at Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad and yet they would not let the public hear what he had to say about October 1941. In the interview Zhukov explained that when he visited the area there were hardly any Soviet troops there and had the Germans continued their advance they would have taken Moscow.

Unfortunately, I could not find a video with English subtitles, so only for Russian speakers.  

From The Times May 6, 2010

Secret film about Marshal Georgy Zhukov is finally aired on Russian television

He held the line at Moscow, fought off the Germans at Stalingrad and rode a white horse at the victory parade as Soviet troops threw Nazi banners at the feet of Joseph Stalin. But for decades the achievements of the most celebrated of Stalin’s generals were quietly airbrushed from Soviet history.

Now a film banned by the Kremlin and kept secret for more than 40 years has provided an insight into the wartime exploits of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the military commander who led the fight against Hitler, and how close the Soviet Union came to defeat.

The interview with Zhukov was recorded in 1966 but was ordered to be destroyed because of its frank assessment of the disorganised state of the Red Army’s defences as the Nazis approached Moscow. The disclosure contradicted official propaganda about Stalin’s leadership during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

A single archive copy was preserved secretly by the father of the television journalist Vladimir Pozner, who broadcast the interview on state-run Channel One yesterday. It was a further sign that President Medvedev is encouraging a more honest assessment of Stalin before Victory Day celebrations on May 9, marking the 65th anniversary of the end of the war. He ordered the publication of documents last week showing that Stalin had approved the massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners at Katyn in 1940.

Zhukov, who reviewed the first victory parade in Red Square on a white horse in 1945, did not mention Stalin as he explained how the Nazis were halted, saying that the Wehrmacht had “overestimated themselves and underestimated Soviet troops”.

The most dangerous week, he said, had been in October 1941 at the Mozhaisk defence line on the outskirts of Moscow. Stalin had summoned him to the Kremlin as the situation grew more desperate.

“Stalin was sick with the flu but was working,” Zhukov told the Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov. “He showed the map of the front and said, ‘look how the situation has turned out on the Western front. I cannot get hold of a single clear report about what is happening at the moment. Where are our troops?’.” Zhukov went to the front line and found “absolutely insufficient” defences. “It was an extremely dangerous situation. In essence, all the approaches to Moscow were open.

“Our troops could not have stopped the enemy if he moved on Moscow. I telephoned Stalin. I said the most urgent thing is to occupy the Mozhaisk defence line as in parts of the Western front in essence there are no [Soviet] troops.” Stalin called back and named him commander of the Western front.

Zhukov admitted that the generals had had doubts about their ability to prevent the Nazis taking the capital.

“Did the commanders have confidence we would be able to halt the enemy? I have to say, frankly, that we did not have complete certainty. It would have been possible to contain the initial units of the opponent but if he quickly sent in his main group, he would have been difficult to stop.” Secret orders had been issued to prepare a rearguard defence of Moscow in case the Germans broke through.

Despite Zhukov’s formidable reputation, the film presents him as a modest man keen to present the war as a triumph for ordinary people determined to defend their homeland and its capital against the invader.

“Every soldier, every officer, every general who took part in the fighting could never forget such a difficult war,” he told his interviewer at one stage. “But more than anything I remember the battle for Moscow. We perfectly understood what it meant and I remember the smallest detail even now. Moscow was the hardest trial.”

Zhukov became the most decorated officer in the Red Army and the only general to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union four times. He was present at the Nazi surrender in Berlin and was made military governor of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany.

Stalin resented his popularity and moved him to outposts in Odessa and the Urals. He was made Defence Minister soon after Stalin’s death and was buried in the Kremlin Wall after his own death in 1974.

Mr Pozner said that Soviet authorities ordered the interview to be destroyed “because Zhukov told the truth”. He added: “I believe that everyone who took part in the war has the right to know the truth about the war.”

Rise and fall
· Born in 1896. As a youth Zhukov was a furrier’s apprentice before being conscripted in 1915 into the cavalry of the Imperial Army

· Fought for the Red Army after the 1917 Revolution, winning praise from its commissar, Joseph Stalin

· Defeated Japan at the Battle of Khalkin-Gol in 1939 and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, an honour conferred on him three more times

· In 1941 inflicted the first big defeat on the Wehrmacht

· Defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in 1942 and at Kursk in 1943. Led the final assault on Germany

· Sidelined by Stalin after the war and sent to command the Odessa district, in present-day Ukraine

· Briefly returned to favour after Stalin’s death in 1955 but dismissed by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957. Rehabilitated again, briefly, in 1964, but never served in office again after that.

· Died on June 18, 1974
Sources: Time; BBC; Times database

Several books on WWII I would recommend:  

Winston Churchill          The Second World War   Vol 1-6
Antony Beevor               Stalingrad  -The Faithful Siege
Antony Beevor               Ardennes 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge
Antony Beevor               D-Day The Battle for Normandy 
Antony Beevor               The Second Word War  
Goeffrey Roberts           Stalin’s General
Vasily Grossman            A Writer at War
Vasily Grossman            Stalingrad
Vasily Grossman            Life and Fate
Andrew Roberts             Churchill: Walking With Destiny
Victor Davis Hanson      The Second World Wars 
Nicholas Monsarrat       The Cruel Sea 
Svetlana Alexievich       The Unwomanly Face of War

NYT: Herd Immunity, or Big 2nd Wave? Israel Antibody Testing Hopes to Find Out

Blood tests of 100,000 Israelis will try to assess exposure to Covid-19 on a nationwide scale.

May 5, 2020

JERUSALEM — Israel, whose aggressive response to the coronavirus has held its fatality rate to a fraction of those of the United States and other hard-hit nations, is readying a nationwide serological test of 100,000 citizens to see how widely the virus has spread across its population and how vulnerable it may be to a new wave of the contagion. 

The survey, to be conducted at clinics run by Israeli H.M.O.s beginning in a week or two, is one of the largest efforts yet to determine the prevalence of antibodies to Covid-19. Germany has also announced antibody testing using a     representative nationwide sample.                               

The results could aid in deciding how quickly businesses and schools should be allowed to return to normal operations. On Monday, Israel announced that citizens could leave their homes after a 40-day lockdown, but many aspects of economic and social life remain curtailed.

Even more important, officials said, the survey’s findings could spur preparations for any strong resurgence of the virus, perhaps when hospitals and health clinics are also busy with seasonal influenza. 

“This is the most important mission: Get ready for the next wave, especially a wave during wintertime,” said Moshe Bar-Siman-Tov, director-general of Israel’s health ministry, in an interview on Tuesday. “Luckily, the Covid-19 caught us post-influenza season. But we can’t assume that there’s not going to be a next wave or that it will be during summertime.”

Officials say they hope the survey will identify the portion of the healthy population that has not yet been exposed to the virus, and the portion that has already been exposed but has developed antibodies to it. The answers could have enormous implications for a country’s capacity to withstand a new wave of the virus.

If antibody tests show that a sizable portion of the population has developed antibodies, that could mean Israel is on its way to “herd immunity” and would be well equipped to withstand further outbreaks.            

But if the tests show that only a tiny percentage of the population has been exposed, the country’s health system could still be overwhelmed by the spread of Covid-19, Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said. He said estimates of the percentage of Israelis with antibodies range widely, from less than 1 percent to upward of 10 percent.

“We want to know the truth,” he said.

The World Health Organization has cautioned that no evidence exists that people who have recovered from Covid-19 or have antibodies to it are protected from another infection.     

But Dr. Yair Schindel, a member of a health ministry task force on the virus who pushed for a large survey, said the Israeli study could produce such evidence. “Part of what we’re trying to achieve here is to answer the questions the W.H.O. is raising,” he said.

Dr. Schindel sketched out two scenarios for Israel.

In the rosier one, the survey would show that 10 percent of Israelis have antibodies to Covid-19. If so, and if a future wave of the virus resulted in the same proportions of Israelis becoming critically ill or dying as have occurred so far, that would mean about 2,300 people would need intensive care, Dr. Schindel said. That would be well within the capacity of the country’s health system.      

But in a bleaker scenario, the survey would reveal that only 1 percent of Israelis have antibodies, in which case the number of people needing intensive-care beds in a future wave could exceed 12,000 — well beyond Israel’s capacity, he said.  


“It’s quite an exercise in epidemiology — so critical that it’s really important to do,” said Dr. Schindel, a co-founder of aMoon, an Israeli venture fund that invests in life-sciences start-ups.

Israel spent nearly $40 million to obtain 2.4 million antibody tests from two suppliers that have received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration: Abbott Laboratories in the United States, and DiaSorin in Italy.

One potential pitfall: If the coronavirus mutates, the blood tests might not be able to identify it, Dr. Schindel said. Another is that not all antibody tests approved by the F.D.A. have proved reliable

The blood tests check plasma for specific iterations of Immunoglobulin-M, or IgM, and Immunoglobulin-G, or IgG, that are created by the immune system in response to Covid-19. While IgM is created quickly as part of the body’s response to infection and dissipates soon, IgG lingers in the body and “represents our memory of our immunity,” Dr. Schindel said. 

Patients visiting their clinics for blood tests for ordinary reasons will be asked to allow their samples to also be tested for coronavirus. 

They will also be asked to complete questionnaires about whether and when they experienced symptoms, whether they were isolated at home or hospitalized, who among their friends and relatives contracted the virus, and so on.

Those whose blood tests show the presence of coronavirus antibodies will be called back for a standard polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., test for the virus, to determine the correlation between viral load and antibody levels, Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said.

“There are so many things that we can learn and research, if we plan it correctly,” he said.

Asking so many citizens to submit to something as invasive as a blood test could seem a tall order in a country where a digital-surveillance initiative to identify coronavirus patients using smartphone location data set off political protests and lawsuits. Many Israelis, citing privacy concerns, also declined to download a government-sponsored app that was designed to help them avoid fellow citizens who had tested positive.

But Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said he did not expect the survey to be a tough sell because participants will be told the results. “I think the people would like to know,” he said. “I mean, I think about myself, and I would like to know.” He added, “I think that we’ll have more demand than supply.” 

Moreover, whether out of a tendency toward hypochondria or because their socialized health-care system makes it cheap and easy, as many as 70 to 80 percent of Israelis already have blood drawn in any given year, Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said.

“Israelis are addicted to health services,” he said, laughing.

In addition to the broad nationwide sample, Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said the ministry planned to test greater concentrations of subjects in cities that have experienced major outbreaks, like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Health-care workers will also be tested as a group. The remaining antibody tests will be made available to researchers for further studies, he said.

If the nationwide survey shows a large portion of the population has gained immunity, that could prompt the government to ease remaining restrictions faster, Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said. But he said there was no going back to a stricter lockdown based on the serological tests alone.

Though Israelis have complained about chaos and inconsistency in the way the rules have been developed and enforced, the country has fared relatively well, with only 237 dead and 16,268 cases as of Tuesday afternoon. Fatalities per million of population are 27 in Israel, compared to 213 in the United States.

Mr. Bar-Siman-Tov said Israel’s experience had shown that “to be pre-emptive, that was the key.” 
“The time to take action, or to take the measures that you want to take during pandemics, is when you think it’s too early,” he said, recalling decisions beginning with the cancellation of airline flights from China in early February.

“Everybody thought we were being too aggressive about it, or just exaggerating the threat, that nothing is going to happen, we’re just ruining Israeli foreign affairs, or being hysterical, or ruining the economy,” he said. “It usually took a day for us to feel that we did the right thing, and about two to three days for others.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Reaction in Britain to what Neil Ferguson has done has been too harsh

Neil Ferguson

Regarding Neil Ferguson: UK coronavirus adviser resigns after breaking lockdown rules

Thanks to Neil Ferguson tens of thousands of lives were saved in the UK and US since it was only after the Imperial College London report on March 16 that both Boris Johnson and president Trump imposed a lockdown.  In his defense, Mr. Ferguson said: "I acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus and completely isolated myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms”. He obviously believed that he did not present a danger to anyone any more. How true was that?     

There is no definitive answer yet to how immune one is after having been infected and the individual’s risk of getting reinfected and their contagiousness to others. So Neil Ferguson’s statement was probably based on insufficient data that his immunity would be at least for a few months (see below) and he took a risk, however small but still a risk, and he was therefore wrong in doing what he did. In addition, it was hypocritical of him to go against the very rules he decided others should keep.

In a country where actions have consequences he resigned, which is fine.

However, my point is that the good that he had done by saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in the UK and the US vastly outweighs this error of judgement, and this has not been adequately recognized in the UK.

What really should be investigated is why was there such a delay in implementing the lockdown and whose idea was it to try reaching herd immunity so fast.  Because when you look at Israel, where I live, the figures are stunning.

Israel has 16314 cases and 238 deaths with the population of 9.2 million so it has 27 deaths per million population which is ten times less than Sweden has per million. I just cannot imagine that Israel could tolerate 2380 deaths which would approach the number of deaths in the Yom Kippur war. How to explain such numbers? Israel imposed strict restrictions early on and a lockdown at the very beginning of the exponential curve. I personal believe that it helped that Netanyahu has Master of Science degree from MIT whereas Boris Johnson studied humanities at Oxford and Trump has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton school so Netanyahu was much more receptive to the scientists’ advice. In addition, the health care providers (Maccabi for instance) monitors remotely every mildly infected person three times a day. 


This may be complicated by the fact that we don’t yet know the duration of immunity to natural SARS-CoV-2 infection (it could be as short as a few months or as long as several years).

Even more challenging will be understanding what an immune response means for an individual’s risk of getting reinfected and their contagiousness to others.

Based on the volunteer experiments with seasonal coronaviruses and the antibody-persistence studies for SARS and MERS, one might expect a strong immune response to SARS-CoV-2 to protect completely against reinfection and a weaker one to protect against severe infection and so still slow the virus’s spread.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Secretary Pompeo on Chinese labs

Friday, May 1, 2020

COVID-19: The CIDRAP Viewpoint Part 1

Part 1: The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Pandemic Influenza


 One recent study found that the SARS-CoV-2 viral load was highest at the time of symptom onset, suggesting that viral shedding may peak before symptoms occur, leading to substantial presymptomatic transmission 

One way to quantify the transmissibility of a virus is to determine the basic reproductive number (R0) for that virus. The R0 is the average number of new infections that result from a single infected person in a wholly susceptible population  

..effective reproductive number (RE), which is similar to the R0 but does not depend on having a fully susceptible population (Delamater 2019). Immunity in the population can effectively diminish or end an outbreak by driving RE below 1

First, the length of the pandemic will likely be 18 to 24 months,

...a vaccine will likely not be available until at least sometime in 2021