Rejoice! There’s a vaccine! An experimental version has produced a strong positive response! We’ll have a therapeutic version available by September!
Ha ha. No we won’t. The measurable response to a vaccine being trialled by Oxford’s Jenner Institute used several thousand non-COVID-positive volunteers and to quote a surprisingly unreflective Guardian article on the Lancet write-up of the study:
The effect of the vaccine was measured by the amount of antibodies and T-cells it generates in the blood of the volunteers — not in any response to the virus itself.
So it triggered a generic immune response. No word yet on whether it will actually work against the virus.
The series of rolling announcements from the Jenner Institute — it’s the one who said there’d be a vaccine by September — is publicity with a purpose.
Multiple institutes are working on a virus, the competition for state and philanthropic funding is tough, and of course there’s the jockeying for private investment. The Jenner Institute is developing this vaccine with AstraZeneca, which is parallel-producing billions of doses in case it actually works.
So AstraZeneca’s stock must have gone sky high on this announcement, right? Actually it fell by 3.4%. Why? Well its stocks had already gone up by 21% this year as the overall market flatlined.
Why did its stock climb? Could it be all those breathless announcements about a vaccine by September? And why the fall? Could it be that the trial results were disappointing in ways that professional pharma investors could suss but that science stenography, posing as journalism, couldn’t?
The vaccine gold rush runs on confidence, as all capitalism does, but this time with a twist. The search for a vaccine bears with it the hope that all this will be over as soon as possible — and leave no mark.
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There’s caution behind the spin
The massive global parallel vaccine development process makes that more likely than it might once have been. But given that, the relative caution beyond the actual spin shows the real difficulties we face.
Barring a jackpot hit in the next few weeks, there ain’t going to be a vaccine this year or the first half of next — something the government’s advisers may have told it and which may have triggered the surprise announcement that the JobSpin-name programs will be going all the way to March.
The Morrison government may have also quietly conceded that New South Wales is about to blow up, and was simply lagging Victoria in the resurgence of the first wave. Other states would follow, their resurgence delayed simply because nobody wants to go there.
Governments running high-volume, high-demand, high-velocity capitalist societies are doing one of two things: retreating into absolute fantasy, as in the United States or Brazil, or reluctantly facing the fact that this event is going to change the structure of social life in Western societies.
The dimwitted among us haven’t realised this because they haven’t seen a series of permanent qualitative changes implemented. But quantitative change becomes qualitative change, and we got a lot more quantitative coming.
‘Pattern maintenance’ demanded
Even if this was all over tomorrow, so much has been interrupted that to simply resume it would be a declarative act in itself. Society’s smooth reproduction demands what the American sociologist Talcott Parsons called “pattern maintenance”: to guard against the notion that everything is arbitrary and absurd.
Take something as simple as commuting. Before COVID-19, the trains that went through my station — three stops from the city — were ludicrously crammed from 7am to 9am, the core rush hour having spread out as people went earlier and later to avoid it.
Sometimes I’d watch one of these trains go by — people in jumpers and jeans, puffer jackets and T-shirts, tapping their phones, buds in their ears — and have the vision of the same train decades earlier: everyone in suits, dresses or overalls, 40 copies of The Age or The Sun in each carriage, one or two people wearing a newfangled Walkman headset.
The difference was, of course, they all had to get in at the same time, be in the same place, for an office to work, for the city to function. What was remarkable, and onerous, about the miserable current rush-hour commute was that it was entirely unnecessary for 90% of the people on it.
Office coming and going could be staggered: home, workspace and office working could be combined. The whole thing could have been consciously abolished about a decade ago.
Will it simply now come back? The idea that you stand inside someone’s armpit for 12 stations, or idle on the freeway listening to Shazza and the Gob on KAK FM, just to get into an office to Whatsapp the person who’s sitting three hot desks from you? Or will a sufficient interruption break the power of the current ensemble of capital and life to smoothly reproduce?
So much of what was hitherto required now seems absurd and unnecessary. So much was so easily abolished. They could still put it all back in place right now. They are desperate to do so.
But that presumes no second wave, no third wave, no rolling series of interruptions. It presumes no COVID-25 in five years. Or COVID-21. Or an entirely different virus borne on a single global system.
For better and worse — it would be really great if one shop other than Amazon were here in six months — this virus is slowly building the material of a revolution in everyday life which could give the great transformations of the 20th century a run for their money (cashlessly, of course).
So the hope for the fast arrival of a vaccine — which would be, unquestionably, a great event — has a lot riding on it.
It’s not just our bodies they’re trying to save. The aim is to restore a system immunised against change, a whole body politic.