Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

The Times on EU Vaccines, 2021-03-01

Zvi Mowshowitz's new policy is not to link to the New York Times, and he's willing to entertain the policy of not linking to NYT reporters' Twitters (though hasn't pulled the trigger yet). I understand where he's coming from -- Cade Metz's piece on Scott Alexander was really, really not good.

Scott Aaronson has a numbered list of 14 theses issues and won't talk with Cade Metz, even to explain quantum complexity, without a full explanation on how the piece on Slate Star Codex happened. Also understandable; the article really was quite bad.

Then there's social pressure going around not to read the Times. I think this is a mistake. It is important to understand what rhetoric the paper chooses to use, for the same reason that it's important to occasionally look at what's happening on the other side of a chessboard. I wouldn't claim it's in the top-5 most important things to read to understand the world (or even the top 10), but I believe it's part of a complete breakfast a useful exercise, at least sometimes. Certainly it's a good skill to train.

Today, I was holding a physical copy of the Times's international edition -- mostly by accident -- which was a surprisingly good opportunity to practice the technique of carefully separating substance from spin. The rest of this post is a worked example of this 'careful reading' technique on the front-page article that happened to catch my eye. Let's read the Times!


Here's the article (NYT paywall, of course, and I don't know if the online edition matches the print international edition, sorry).

First, ignore the headline entirely.

Then, read each paragraph. Read slowly, and rephrase as a series of claims, where each claim is either:

  • a statement about specific actors taking concrete actions
  • a statement about absolute quantities (if so, find a relevant absolute quantity to compare it to); write all quantities out in numerals
  • a statement about relative quantities (possibly of the form X > 0.0 or Y < 100.0%)
  • a statement of the form "now [statement X], and previously [statement Y]"
  • a statement of the form "[actor A] expects [outcome B]"
  • a statement of the form "The New York Times expects [outcome B]"
  • a statement of the form "[actor A] expresses the moral belief that [moral belief B]"
  • a statement of the form "The New York Times expresses the moral belief that [moral belief B]"
  • &c., you get the idea.
  • "This passage makes no concrete claim."

If it's impossible to identify an actor or concrete quantity, insert "[unspecified actors]" or ">0" and move on. (In practice, you'll do this a lot.) If you are sufficiently curious, skim ahead to see if the quantity or actor is later specified, and fill that in instead.

Now go back and replace all occurrences of the word "some", "a few", &c. with ">0". Strike out (but don't delete) all sentences of the form "[>0 unspecified actors] expect..." or "[>0 unspecified actors] express..."

Replace all occurrences of "weighs", "considers", "looks to", &c. with "[unspecified action]".

The intention here is to rephrase the text, paragraph by paragraph, as a series of falsifiable, substantive claims about concrete actions, expectations, or moral beliefs, with trivial claims about expectations and moral beliefs struck out.

Go back and bold the most important one-third of claims.

Finally, distill the claims of the article into an abstract of 250 words or less, and put it at the top.

Let's try it out, and see what claims this article actual makes, when you strip away rhetorical spin.


Matina Stevis-Gridneff, New York Times (int'l print edition), 2021-03-01

Abstract: The EU has vaccinated a smaller fraction of its population (5%) than the US (14%), the UK (28%), or Israel (54%).

The Times expects that multiple EU nations will, in the future, procure additional Covid-19 vaccine from sources other than the EU's joint purchasing plan. Germany has already purchased 30,000,000 doses of PFE vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech (at an unspecified price). The European Anti-Fraud Office knows of additional offers for >460,000,000 doses, citing prices between $7.8 and $32 per dose. (ry: Castillo et al. estimate the marginal social value of vaccine to be at least $576 per course.)

The New York Times believes that a price of $7.8 per dose of vaccine is "exorbitant" and that it is "troubling" that many national officials have received such offers. The Anti-Fraud Office believes that there is a potential risk of fraud, and is responding by releasing anti-fraud information faster than it usually releases anti-fraud information.

Additionally, some EU national governments had agreed in Q4 2020 to exchange doses of vaccine -- for example, nations like Poland agreed to pay less cash and receive non-mRNA vaccines (which require less-complicated logistics) instead of mRNA vaccines (which are expected to prevent more mild and moderate cases). Nations like Germany and the Netherlands agreed to pay more cash and receive mRNA vaccines instead of non-mRNA vaccines. Due to unforseen changes in the delivery schedules of different vaccines types, some agreements which were mutually agreeable at the time are now undesirable for one party.

The EU health regulator has not authorized the JNJ vaccine.

[Unspecified European actors] have a significant preference for receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. Europe is wealthier than [unspecified other countries]. [>2 unspecified EU nations] have made agreements to trade >0 doses of different vaccines with each other. [>0 unspecified EU nations] have [unspecified action] purchasing vaccines from [unspecified actors in Russia] and [unspecified actors in China]. [>0 unspecified EU national governments] have received offers of vaccine doses for sale from [>1 unspecified] organizations who have previously purchased vaccine doses. The New York Times expects that >0 of these organizations are real, and that >0 of these organizations are "outright frauds".

[Unspecified actors] express the moral emotion of anger that [the fraction of the EU population that has been vaccinated] is lower than [the fraction of the population in other wealthy countries, including the US and the UK]. The governments of at least Germany, Italy, Hungary, and the Czech Republic [unspecified action] a plan to acquire doses in addition to the EU's joint purchasing strategy. [Unspecified actors] express the moral belief that the EU's joint purchasing strategy is "woefully underwhelming".

[Unspecified actors] -- from places including >0 non-EU countries -- have offered to sell vaccines to EU governments. The New York Times expresses the economic--philosophical belief that these transactions constitute a "black -- or at least gray -- market". The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is sharing information about this matter with the New York Times. OLAF knows about offers totaling >460,000,000 doses (ry: The EU has ~446,000,000 inhabitants.) OLAF believes that these doses have been offered at an average price of ~$7.8 each (ry: Castillo et al. estimate the marginal social value of vaccine to be at least $576 per course, yes really.); the New York Times expresses the moral belief that this price is "exorbitant".

The national governments of at least Germany, Italy, Hungary, and the Czech Republic plan to both (1) receive vaccine through the EU's joint purchasing strategy, and (2) pay money to receive additional vaccine from [PFE and >0 other vaccine companies] and/or [>0 organizations who have bought vaccine from vaccine companies]. The New York Times expresses the belief that the market for trading cash for vaccines is "murky". [>2 unspecified national governments, including that of Poland] previously agreed to trade >0 capacity of the PFE and MNRA vaccines for >0 capacity of the AZN and JNJ vaccines, or vice versa. In >0 cases, the relative values of [PFE or MNRA vaccines] and [AZN or JNJ vaccines] have changed. Due to these changes, some deals that were previously win-win have now become win-lose.

The EU made advance purchases from vaccine companies >1 weeks after the US, the UK, and >0 other countries. [The realized rate of vaccine production] is lower than [the rate that unspecified EU actors expected in late 2020]. [>0 EU national governments] have administered vaccinations at a rate slower than [the rate the New York Times believes they could have].

5% of the EU population have received at least one dose of a vaccine. 14% of the US population has. 28% of the UK population has. 54% of the Israeli population has.

The New York Times expresses the moral belief that politics regarding vaccines is now toxic, and was not previously. (ry: lol.) The UK has a higher rate of vaccination than the EU average (ry: see above, 28% vs 5% of population vaccinated to date). The Times believes that the UK will have less lockdown in the future than now. The Times believes that EU countries will have more economic recession in the future than now. [Unspecified EU actors] express the moral belief that these facts are "galling".

In Q4 2020, >0 national goverments (including Poland and >0 other unspecified EU countries which were less affluent than other unspecified EU countries) agreed to receive >0 fewer doses of the PFE and MRNA vaccines (which require ultracold storage) in return for >0 additional cash and >0 doses of the AZN vaccine (which does not).

AZN's expected rate of delivery to the EU is now lower than it was in Q4 2020. [Unspecified EU governmental leaders] take the epistemological--moral position that the efficacy of the AZN vaccine in >0 older age groups is "questionable".

The national government of Poland agreed, in Q4 2020, to receive >0 less MRNA vaccine and pay >0 less cash. Polish MEP Andrzej Halicki expresses the moral belief that this action was a "criminal" "breach of obligations".

The US health regulator de facto authorized the single-shot JNJ vaccine for use on 27 Feb; the EU health regulator had not authorized it by 1 March. The New York Times expects a >0% chance that JNJ vaccines will be administered to Americans before 7 March. The EU's joint purchasing plan has pre-ordered >2,000,000 doses of the JNJ vaccine.

The national goverment of Germany has secured 50,000,000 MNRA vaccine doses. (ry: The population of Germany is 83,000,000.) 50,000,000 MNRA doses is greater than the German allocation of the EU's joint purchasing plan. The national government of Germany has made >0 deals to acquire >0 additional MNRA doses from other EU states [with unspecified other deal terms].

The national government of Germany has also agreed to purchase an extra 30,000,000 doses of PFE vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech to be delivered later in 2021. [Unspecified EU actors] believe that the German national government de facto led the EU joint purchasing plan and also purchased additional doses, and express the moral emotion of anger at that combination of facts.

[Unspecified EU actors] believe that, if >0 countries purchase additional vaccine, the EU's joint purchasing plan will have less market power over vaccine companies than if those countries did not. [Those unspecified EU actors] also believe that the schedule of vaccine administration will be different if countries purchase and administer additional vaccine doses, than if they did not.

The European Commission expresses the moral belief that EU countries should not, morally speaking, purchase additional vaccine directly from companies that the EU joint purchasing plan purchases from.

[Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis], [Italian regional health official Raffaele Donini], [top government officials in Germany, Greece, and Finland], and [other government officials] have each received >0 unsolicited offers to purchase vaccine doses for cash. The New York Times expresses the moral belief that this fact is "troubling". The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF, remember them?) expresses the moral belief that few of these sellers are "legitimate".

OLAF director general Ville Itala knows about offers totaling >460,000,000 doses for ~€3,000,000,000 (ry: ~$7.8 per dose; again, Castillo et al. estimate the marginal social value of vaccine to be at least $576 per course). Ville Itala expects that there will be more opportunity for vaccine purchases in the future than there is now.

Ville Itala / OLAF are announcing this information to the public now, at what OLAF considers a relatively early stage of the investigation. OLAF would usually announce such information later in the investigation. OLAF claims to be announcing it earlier because they have the moral belief that "the [unspecified] potential risks to Europeans are huge".

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen expects that, "in a crisis like this", >0 people will seek to "benefit or profit" in ways that are related to others having problems. Ursula von der Leyen beleives that the number of successful frauds and fraud attempts will be higher at a future time than it is now. (ry: Note that the only prior discussion of the current rate of frauds / attempts is the NYT's expectation that >0 offers are fraud attempts, from the first paragraph.)

[>0 unspecified government officials] claim they will "carefully" examine each offer to sell vaccine doses before rejecting it.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said in Feb 2021, "Wherever a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand, vaccine [doses] seem to be ready to fall off a truck, a Hungarian scout must be standing by to catch them."

[Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis], [top government officials in Germany, Greece, and Finland], and [other government officials] have received offers to sell vaccine from organizations in Dubai and >0 other places. OLAF director general Ville Itala says most of the offers he has seen claim to be selling the AZN vaccine. AZN says they only sell the vaccine to "governments or multilateral organizations". The New York Times notes that it is possible for governments or multilateral organizations to resell vaccine doses they have purchased from AZN.

An AZN company spokesman claimed that AZN "has not authorized any shipments of the vaccine outside of the existing contract with the [EU]" (ry: unclear whether the original contracts of sale require AZN's authorization for re-shipment), and makes an ambiguous statement that can either be interpreted as [expressing the moral belief that vaccines should not be purchased for distribution in exchange for cash] or [claiming that AZN expects that 0 doses have been sold to organizations for the purpose of reselling for distribution in exchange for cash].

The New York Times believes that >0 of the offers to sell vaccine are "clearly fraudulent". [>0 unspecified governmental officials] believe that >0 offers are "legitimate". [>0 unspecified governmental officals] express the belief, about >0 of the offers, that the quoted price is "astronomical". (ry: Castillo et al. estimate the marginal social value of vaccine to be at least $576 per course.)

In Italy, "many" offers to sell vaccine have gone to regional local officials who the New York Times believes "have extensive power over health care systems". [Italian police] and [unspecified other Italian authorities] are vetting >0 of these pitches.

Cesare Buquicchio, a spokesman for the Italian health minister, said "If these doses are legally purchased and there was a fully regular process, we could also consider purchasing it." He also expects that it is >0% likely that current vaccine procurement plans would be modified "at a European level", specifically in response to "delays in the deliveries."

Rafaele Donini, a top health official in the northern Italian region Emilia-Romagna, said he had received >2 emails offering >2,000,000 vaccine doses, including 1 email from [J&G General Service D.O.O.], a company based in Croatia. The offered price per dose of AZN vaccine was, in Rafaele Donini's opinion, "not much higher" than the EU-negotiated price.

J&G General Service director Juri Gasparotta said that the doses offered in the email to Rafaele Donini would be provided by an unspecified "major pharmaceutical company" outside the EU who was "directly in contact with AstraZeneca". He also expressed the moral opinion that vaccine producers claiming to only sell to state entities were "hypocrites".

Rafaele Donini also received an offer of vaccines from [Mondial Pharma], a company based in Lugano, Switzerland. These vaccines were offered at a higher price per dose than those offered by [J&G General Service].

Mondial Pharma marketing official Peirfrancesco Lucignano said that Mondial Pharma had offered Emilia-Romagna 3,000,000 doses of the AZN vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India (the offician Indian manufacturing partner for AZN). These doses were offered at a price of ~$32. (ry: Castillo et al. estimate the marginal social value of vaccine to be at least $576 per course.)

Luca Zaia, president of the northern Italian region Veneto, claims that the region has received >1 offers totalling >2,000,000 doses of vaccine from intermediaries that the region has done business with in the past. He expects that they are not dealing with "tricksters that come here and pretend they have a garage full of vaccines".

Raffaele Donini, the Emilia-Romagna health official, claims that Italy is, figuratively speaking, distributing vaccine at 20% of its potential rate, due to a lack of supply. He publicly proposes that Italy should use Emilia-Romagna's connections with vaccine brokers to purchase additional doses of vaccine.


The scandal here is not that brokers from Dubai or manufacturers in India are trying to sell more vaccine to European nations at $8/dose. The scandal here is not that the Europrean Anti-Fraud Office thinks there might be some frauds. And the scandal here is not that Poland(?) agreed months ago to take Germany(?)'s AZN vaccine and give Germany(?) its MNRA vaccine, and now AZN's production is slower than they previously thought it would be.

No, the real scandal is that the New York Times thinks it is "exorbitant" to pay $8/dose (or $30/dose, whatever) for vaccine, when a dozen leading American economists think that the social value of vaccination is 5 to 60 times that, Europeans are dying, and new strains are mutating. That the Times recklessly smears Germany's attempts to purchase more vaccine (directly from Pfizer!) for its citizens than other countries agreed to buy as "troubling" interactions in "a black—or at least gray—market". That the Times buried the lede -- the EU can purchase $132,000,000,000 of social good for Europeans for pennies on the dollar, and the European Commission thinks they shouldn't -- on page 7 of the business section.

$8/dose is less than the EU's joint purchasing program paid! $30/dose is what Zvi would call a SCREAMING BUY! The Times's editorial choice to frame the prices as "astronomical" and "exorbitant" either blindly misses this simple quantitative point, or willfully misses it.

The bare, concrete facts of the story are basically "there's a shocking amount of vaccine that European governments might be able to buy at cheap, cheap prices, and some of them might do it". Those are the facts that made it into the piece. And so you have to ask, what axe does the Times want to grind, such that it chooses to run -- with these facts -- a front-page article written and edited to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about European governments' plans to double down on buying more vaccine than the lethargic and penny-pinching joint plan could stomach?

Is the Times trying to knock national governments down a peg, vis-à-vis multinational alliances? Are they trying to get a good kick in on the idea that trade of valuable goods might leave both parties better off? Did this recklessly slanted article end up in the 'news' section because the Times's editorial process cannot distinguish this level of unsubstantiated spin from "news fit to print"?

Or is this just the way the Times always is on topics like this, when you don't go over it with a fine-toothed comb? I'm honestly now not sure.


A friend points out that perhaps it's (long past) time we stopped treating the Times as one undifferentiated entity, and instead modeled it as a conglomeration of agents and power blocs with their own agendas, epistemic standards, and professional practices. Fair enough, perhaps.

In any case, the bottom-line prescription seems the same: Take care to sift the substance from the spin, for your own protection. Ask what the substance is. Then ask what the spin, as a speech act, tells us.