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Good morning. The Covid vaccine is here, and we explain how it arrived with stunning speed.
Before Covid-19, the record for the fastest vaccine development — for mumps — was four years. Most vaccines have required more than a decade of research and experimentation.
Yet yesterday morning, less than a year after the discovery of Covid, a critical care nurse in Queens named Sandra Lindsay became the first American to participate in the mass vaccination program for the coronavirus. “I feel like healing is coming,” she said afterward.
It is a stunning story of scientific success.
It also fits a pattern that stretches back decades: Many of the biggest technological breakthroughs in American history have not sprung from the private sector. They have instead been the result of collaboration between private companies and the federal government.
The Defense Department, after all, built the internet. Government research and development also led to transistors, silicon chips, radar, jet airplanes, satellites, artificial limbs, cortisone, flat screens and much more, as the M.I.T. economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson point out in their recent book, “Jump-Starting America.”
“Almost everything about your computer today — and the way you use it — stems from government funding at the early stages,” Gruber and Johnson write.
Why? Because basic research is usually too uncertain and expensive for any one company to afford. Often, it isn’t even clear which future products the research may create. No kitchen appliance company ever would have thought to do the military research that led to the microwave oven.
With Covid, the vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna rely on years of government-funded (and sometimes government-conducted) research into viral proteins and genetics. That research, Kaiser Health News explains, is “the essential ingredient in the rapid development of vaccines in response to Covid-19.”
The federal help accelerated this year. The government funded Moderna’s work in recent months, as part of the billions of dollars it spent to make possible a record-breaking vaccine, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong writes. And while Pfizer turned down direct federal funding, it asked for the government’s help in procuring supplies and also signed a $1.95 billion “advance purchase” agreement with Washington.
As my colleague Neil Irwin has written: “The nine months of the pandemic have shown that in a modern state, capitalism can save the day — but only when the government exercises its power to guide the economy and act as the ultimate absorber of risk. The lesson of Covid capitalism is that big business needs big government, and vice versa.”
What are the lessons for the post-Covid world? Solving the biggest challenges, like climate change, will almost certainly depend on a combination of public-sector funding and private-sector ingenuity.
Yet as Gruber and Johnson note, federal funding of science has become a smaller part of the U.S. economy than it used to be. Which means the Covid vaccine is both an inspiring success and something of an exception. “On its current course,” the economists write, “America seems unlikely to continue its dominance of invention.”
THE LATEST NEWS
The Electoral College formally designated President-elect Joe Biden the winner of the election. In a speech a few hours later, Biden called President Trump’s attacks on voting “unconscionable.”
Attorney General Bill Barr will leave his post next week, Trump tweeted, after tension between the two men over Barr’s refusal to echo Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud. Jeffrey Rosen, Barr’s deputy, will become the acting attorney general.
A bipartisan group of Congress members unveiled a pair of compromise stimulus bills. Their goal was to separate two divisive provisions — legal immunity for businesses and aid to state and local governments — from money for vaccine distribution, unemployment benefits and more.
Representative Paul Mitchell of Michigan, who is retiring, said he would leave the Republican Party and serve the rest of his term as an independent because of party leaders’ acquiescence to Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.
Early voting started in Georgia’s runoff elections, which will determine which party controls the Senate. Biden will campaign in the state today.
Other Big Stories
A Russian intelligence agency hacked into the Department of Homeland Security in addition to the Treasury, Commerce and Defense Departments. U.S. officials were unaware of the breach, which took place in the spring, until last week.
More than a dozen delivery workers in South Korea have died this year, some after speaking out about unbearable workloads. The deaths have caused a national uproar.
Ann Reinking, a dancer, actor and Tony Award-winning choreographer who performed on Broadway for almost 30 years, died at 71.
Dixie State University, a public university in Utah, is proposing to change its name. Some recent graduates said that the name put off potential employers.
The maker of Cyberpunk 2077, a highly anticipated video game that came out last week, offered refunds after players on some platforms complained of glitches and poor visuals.
Long Reads: Bloomberg Businessweek published its annual Jealousy List, where its journalists highlight the stories from other outlets they wish they had written.
From Opinion: Watch “An Ode to the Before Times,” a charming, three-minute animated video by Tala Schlossberg.
Lives Lived: Anthony Veasna So was on the brink of literary stardom. His crackling, kinetic stories explored the experiences of Cambodian-Americans, and his first book, to be published in August, was the subject of a bidding war. “He had so much radical talent,” one of his teachers said. He died at 28.
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O Christmas Tree, Where Art Thou?
The United States has a Christmas tree shortage. Many tree lots and farms have already sold out of their largest trees, and some are closing early because of a lack of inventory.
The pandemic is one contributing factor. “I’ve had customers tell me they wanted something happy in the house,” an employee at Boyd’s Christmas Trees in North Carolina told The Asheville Citizen Times. “They want something pretty to look at, and some that usually do artificial, this year they wanted a live tree.”
But there are other causes, too. Christmas trees can take up to 12 years to grow from seedlings to a harvestable size, which means that 2008 was a key planting year for this year’s trees. In 2008, the economy was in a recession, forcing some farms to close and others to plant fewer trees.
Climate change also plays a role. Wildfires on the West Coast have damaged some tree farms, The Wall Street Journal reported. And insect infestation and droughts “have affected the trees up and down the East Coast,” Russell Trent, the owner of Mark’s Christmas Tree Farms in Connecticut, told NBC.
If you want a tree and don’t have one yet, you can probably still find one. Just be prepared for a smaller selection and higher prices.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
This hot and sour soup is a cinch to whip up at home, thanks to store-bought dumplings.
The Nancy Meyers cinematic universe — full of turtlenecks, immaculate kitchens and comfort — is a wintertime staple. Vulture spoke with the filmmaker about her career, and whether she thinks she’ll make another feature film anytime soon.
Book to Screen
With a new TV version of his post-apocalyptic epic, “The Stand,” arriving on Thursday, Stephen King reflected on the best and worst adaptations of his work.
Pretend you’re in Singapore with a little work in the kitchen and the right book, courtesy of this guide.
The late-night hosts are excited about the vaccine.
Now Time to Play
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was comically. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “Oh, you wanna go? Let’s go!” (five letters).
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Times subscribers can enjoy a special Modern Love event, featuring Dianne Wiest and Andrew Rannells, tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern.