Countries are tightening their borders as a ban takes effect Saturday on noncitizens traveling to the United States from South Africa, amid warnings over the threat posed by a virus variant spreading rapidly there and signs that it can weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.
In recent days, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax have each announced that their vaccines provided strong protection against Covid-19, but the results came with a significant cautionary note: Their efficacy rate dropped in South Africa, where the highly contagious variant is driving most cases. Studies suggest that the variant also blunts the effectiveness of Covid vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax.
The variant, B.1.351, has spread to at least 31 countries, including two cases documented in the United States this week.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., said on Friday that virus variants should serve as a “wake-up call” to the public, warning vaccine companies they must be “nimble to be able to adjust readily to make versions of the vaccine that are actually, specifically directed to whatever mutation is actually prevalent at any given time.”
Other countries hoping to slow the spread of more contagious variants will soon be under new restrictions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has announced some flights from Mexico and Caribbean nations will be suspended. International travelers must take coronavirus tests when they return to Canada and will have to wait up to three days for results in an approved hotel at their own expense.
Restrictions in France and Germany begin this weekend. Starting Sunday, France will ban most travel from all countries outside of the European Union. Except for cross-border workers, travelers from E.U. countries will be required to present a negative test before entering the country, said Jean Castex, the French prime minister.
In Germany, nonresidents from several countries — Portugal, Brazil, South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Britain and Ireland — will be restricted from entering the country, even if they test negative for the virus.
The United States is also extending its ban on travel from Brazil, Britain and 27 European countries.
The first U.S. case of a Brazil-based variant, known as P.1, was confirmed in Minnesota on Monday. Scientists expect it to behave similarly to the South African-based variant because it shares genetic similarities.
Vaccines have proven effective in studies against the highly contagious Britain-based variant, called B.1.1.7, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned it could become the main source of U.S. infection by March and drive more cases and deaths.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new C.D.C. director, said Friday that the variant first identified in Britain has now been confirmed in 379 cases in 29 states. She said officials remained concerned about the variants and were “rapidly ramping up surveillance and sequencing activities” to closely monitor them. Unlike Britain, the United States has been conducting little of the genomic sequencing necessary to track the spread of the variants.
The spreading variants have added renewed urgency to speeding up vaccine distribution. The E.U. is grappling with disrupted vaccine deliveries, while the Biden administration is pushing to accelerate the slow, chaotic inoculation drive in the United States.
With nearly eight million people, or 11.7 percent of the population, having already received their first shot, Britain’s pace of vaccination is the fastest of any large nation in the world. Only Israel and the United Arab Emirates are moving faster.
Britain has set up dozens of vaccination centers in sports stadiums, churches, mosques, even an open-air museum in the Midlands, familiar to television views as the set for the popular crime series “Peaky Blinders.”
“Vaccination is the one thing we’ve gotten right,” said Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London.
The rapid rollout is a rare success for a country whose response to the coronavirus has otherwise been bungled — plagued by delays, reversals and mixed messages. All of which have contributed to a death toll that recently surged past 100,000 and cemented Britain’s status as the worst-hit country in Europe.
But success has brought its own headaches: Doctors now worry about running short of supplies after a vaccine war erupted between Britain and the European Union. The E.U. imposed export restrictions on vaccines made in the bloc on Friday after accusing a British-based vaccine maker, AstraZeneca, of favoring its home market.
And Britain’s aggressive approach is not without risks: To reach more people quickly, it opted to delay giving them second doses for up to 12 weeks after the first, rather than the three or four weeks tested in clinical trials.
Britain’s divorce from the European Union helped give it the political leeway to authorize multiple vaccines before the bloc and to swiftly lock up its own production of the vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. Much of the success is also a result of back-to-basics decisions by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
South Carolina was already experiencing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation when officials got word this week of an alarming development: A new, more concerning variant of the virus, originally identified in South Africa, had been detected in the state.
Not long after, a second case was discovered with no known connection to the first, state officials announced on Thursday.
Neither patient had a history of travel, officials said, suggesting that what many public health experts had feared had come to pass: The new variant of the virus had taken root in the United States.
The arrival of the variant — believed to be highly contagious and less responsive to vaccines — underscores the shaky progress the country has made in its battle against the virus. Even as millions of people have gotten vaccinated, and the country teeters on a downward trajectory of about 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day, new mutations of the virus are threatening to undermine what little headway the country has made.
“It is a pivotal moment,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California, who studies immunity against infectious diseases. “It is a race with the new variants to get a large number of people vaccinated before those variants spread.”
The variant from South Africa, known as B.1.351, is one of several mutations that have emerged as the pandemic has dragged on. Others include a variant from Brazil, which was detected in Minnesota this week, and one from Britain, which is spreading more widely in the United States.
The variants are believed to be more contagious, and the one from South Africa is among the most worrisome because preliminary research suggests that vaccines may be less effective against it.
The coronavirus test center on A Street in Davis, Calif., was bustling on a recent morning. Michael Duey was in line, as usual, with his teenage son. Margery Hayes waited for her wife in the parking lot. Dr. Elizabeth Pham hustled her children in for a quick pit stop.
Inside, each received a five-minute screening for the virus, administered and paid for by the University of California, Davis. Yet none of them is associated with the school.
All last fall, universities across the country were accused of enabling the pandemic’s spread by bringing back students who then endangered local residents, mingling with them in bars, stores and apartments. So U.C. Davis is trying something different.
Rather than turning the campus into a protective bubble for students and staff, as some schools have attempted, it has quietly spent the past six months making its campus bubble bigger — big enough, in fact, to encompass the entire city.
Public health experts say the initiative is the most ambitious program of its type in the country and could be a model for other universities. U.C. Davis has made free coronavirus tests — twice weekly, with overnight results — available to all 69,500 people in the city of Davis and hundreds of nonresidents who just work there.
It has also trained dozens of graduate students to help with contact tracing; recruited hotel and apartment owners to provide free isolation and quarantine housing to anyone in town exposed to the virus; and hired some 275 undergraduate ambassadors to combat health disinformation and hand out free masks.
The European Union early Saturday abruptly reversed an attempt to restrict vaccine exports from the bloc into Britain, the latest misstep in the continent’s faltering vaccine rollout.
The bloc had come under harsh criticism on Friday from Britain, Ireland and the World Health Organization when it announced plans to use emergency measures under the Brexit deal to block Covid-19 vaccines from being shipped across the Irish border into Britain.
The reversal came as the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, were already under fire for the comparatively slow rollout of vaccinations in the 27 member states, especially compared with Britain and the United States.
The commission announced the restrictions without consulting member states or Britain, a former member — unusually aggressive behavior that is not typical of the bloc, said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
“There’s clearly panic at the highest levels of the commission, and the issue of the Northern Ireland agreement has been swept up in this bigger issue of the E.U.’s poor vaccine performance,” he said.
The drama unfolded just as the bloc’s plan to vaccinate 70 percent of its adult population by the summer was unraveling. Already slow in ordering and delivering the vaccines, the European Union was hit with a devastating blow when AstraZeneca announced that it would slash vaccine deliveries because of production problems.
The initial E.U. plan for export controls brought cries of outrage from both the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. Both sides are committed to not recreating any land border between the two parts of the island of Ireland.
Triggering the emergency measures in the Brexit agreement so soon after Britain left the bloc’s authority at the end of 2020 seemed to call into question the European Union’s sincerity in following through with the deal regarding Ireland — which was one of the biggest sticking points to reaching the deal. Ireland’s prime minister, Micheal Martin, immediately raised the issue with Ms. von der Leyen.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain spoke to both leaders. And Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, called the bloc’s move “an incredible act of hostility.”
Britons who favored Brexit point to their country’s more rapid vaccination rollout as a benefit of leaving the bloc and its slower, collective processes.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, as thousands of patients are dying every day in the United States and widespread vaccination is still months away, doctors have precious few drugs to fight the virus.
A handful of therapies — remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies and the steroid dexamethasone — have improved the care of Covid patients, putting doctors in a better position than they were when the virus surged last spring. But these drugs are not cure-alls and they’re not for everyone, and efforts to repurpose other drugs, or discover new ones, have not had much success.
The government poured $18.5 billion into vaccines, a strategy that resulted in at least five effective products at record-shattering speed. But its investment in drugs was far smaller, about $8.2 billion, most of which went to just a few candidates, such as monoclonal antibodies. Studies of other drugs were poorly organized.
The result was that many promising drugs that could stop the disease early, called antivirals, were neglected. Their trials have stalled, either because researchers could not find enough funding or enough patients to participate.
At the same time, a few drugs have received sustained investment despite disappointing results. There is now a wealth of evidence that the malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine did not work against Covid. And yet there are still 179 clinical trials with 169,370 patients in which at least some are receiving the drugs, according to the Covid Registry of Off-label & New Agents at the University of Pennsylvania. And the federal government funneled tens of millions of dollars into an expanded access program for convalescent plasma, infusing almost 100,000 patients before there was any robust evidence that it worked. In January, those trials revealed that, at least for hospitalized patients, it doesn’t.
The lack of centralized coordination meant that many trials for Covid antivirals were doomed from the start — too small and poorly designed to provide useful data, according to Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. If the government had instead set up an organized network of hospitals to carry out large trials and quickly share data, researchers would have many more answers now.
Wearing bathrobes, pajamas or whatever else they could quickly throw on, hundreds of people flocked to get Covid vaccines in Seattle on Thursday night after a refrigerator that was chilling 1,600 doses broke down, leading to a frenzied overnight inoculation drive.
The impromptu vaccinations began after a refrigerator malfunctioned at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Seattle, meaning the Moderna vaccines inside had to be quickly injected or they would become less effective and need to be thrown away. Health officials reached out to two other hospital systems in the city, and an urgent call was issued around 11 p.m., alerting residents that they had a rare chance to get vaccines if they could come right away.
“We’ve got to get these 1,600 doses into people’s arms in the next 12 hours,” Susan Mullaney, Kaiser’s regional president for Washington, said at a virtual news conference on Friday, describing the hospital’s call to action.
Within minutes, there were long lines outside of at least two medical centers, and by about 3:30 a.m., the vaccines had all been administered, hospital officials said.
In interviews with local television stations, the arriving patients said they had been relaxing at home, washing dishes or watching the news when they saw that they suddenly had a chance to get a shot. One couple said their daughter had called after they were in bed to say that she had signed them up for an appointment at 1 a.m.
“We didn’t have time to dress up, so I just came as I am,” the mother said, motioning toward her husband, who was wearing a bathrobe.
The situation in Seattle was only the latest instance in which a breakdown in the inoculation process forced health officials to give the vaccines to anyone they could find. It also highlights the challenge posed by the two vaccines that have so far been approved in the United States — both need to be kept cold. Earlier this week, health workers stuck in a snowstorm in Oregon walked from car to car, asking stranded drivers if they wanted a shot, after realizing that the doses they were transporting might expire as they waited on the highway.
Seattle hospital officials told local news outlets that they had tried to prioritize older patients and others who were already eligible for vaccines in the state, but they said their first priority had been to give out all of the vaccines before they expired.
“We are tired, but we are inspired,” Kevin Brooks, the chief operating officer of Swedish Health Services, one of two hospitals that administered the vaccines, said in a statement. “It was touching to see grandmas in wheelchairs at 2 a.m. being vaccinated.”
Ms. Mullaney, the Kaiser regional president, said that every refrigerator and freezer at the Seattle location had since been tested and were all working properly.
In Los Angeles County, the impacts of the pandemic have been relatively dispersed, with millions of residents suffering and grieving in isolation across a famously vast sprawl. Lockdowns — some of the nation’s most stringent, credited with saving thousands of lives — have kept Angelenos apart for months on end.
But recently, as Los Angeles County has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, the astonishing surge has reinforced the virus’s unequal toll, pummeling poorer communities of color. Experts say that deeply rooted inequality is both a symptom and a critical cause of Covid-19’s overwhelming spread through the nation’s most populous county.
“The challenge is that even before the surge, we had unevenness in Los Angeles County and in the state of California — we had smoldering embers in parts of our community all the time,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our interconnectedness is part of the story.”
County officials recently estimated that one in three of Los Angeles County’s roughly 10 million people have been infected with Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. But even amid an uncontrolled outbreak, some Angelenos have faced higher risk than others. County data shows that Pacoima, a predominantly Latino neighborhood that has one of the highest case rates in the nation, has roughly five times the rate of Covid-19 cases as much richer and whiter Santa Monica.
Experts point to a combination of factors that have made the uneven impacts of the virus tragically predictable across the country, an imbalance that is often magnified in California.
The religious sisters who lived in retired seclusion at the Dominican Life Center in Michigan followed strict rules to avoid an outbreak of coronavirus infection: They were kept in isolation, visitors were prohibited and masks were required by everyone on campus.
But after months after being kept at bay, it found its way in.
On Friday, the Adrian Dominican Sisters said nine sisters died in January from Covid-19 complications at the campus in Adrian, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit.
“It’s numbing,” said Sister Patricia Siemen, leader of the religious order. “We had six women die in 48 hours.”
The deaths of the sisters in Michigan have added to what is becoming a familiar trend in the spread of the virus, as it devastates religious congregate communities by infecting retired, aging populations of sisters and nuns who had quietly devoted their lives to others.
Now some of these sisters have been thrust into the public eye, as details about their names, ages and lifetimes of work are being highlighted as part of the national discourse about Americans lost to the coronavirus.
“It is a moment of reckoning with the place that they have in our culture now,” said Kathleen Holscher, a professor who holds the endowed chair of Roman Catholic studies at the University of New Mexico. “Fifty or 60 years ago, they were the face of American Catholicism, in schools and in hospitals.”
Several of the women who died at the Adrian Dominican Sisters campus had been nurses or teachers. Others had dedicated decades of their lives to religious service.
“Americans are being reminded they are older, and still there,” Dr. Holscher said. “But now they are living in these community situations and caring for one another.”
The accounting of the deaths in the nation’s religious congregate communities started in the first half of 2020 as the country broadly began to take note of the deadly transmission of the virus and the lives it took.
At first glance, the results reported on Friday from the long-awaited trial of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine might have seemed disappointing. Its overall efficacy — the ability to prevent moderate and severe disease — was reported at 72 percent in the United States, 66 percent in Latin American countries and 57 percent in South Africa.
Those figures appear far below the high bar set by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the first two vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States, which reported overall efficacy from 94 to 95 percent.
But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that the more crucial measure was the ability to prevent severe disease, which translates to keeping people out of the hospital and preventing deaths. And that result, for Johnson & Johnson, was 85 percent in all of the countries where it was tested, including South Africa, where a rapidly spreading variant of the virus had shown some ability to elude vaccines.
More important than preventing “some aches and a sore throat,” Dr. Fauci said, is to fend off severe disease, especially in people with underlying conditions and in older adults, who are more likely to become seriously ill and to die from Covid-19.
Researchers warn that trying to compare effectiveness between new studies and earlier ones may be misleading, because the virus is evolving quickly and to some extent the trials have studied different pathogens.
“You have to recognize that Pfizer and Moderna had an advantage,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview. “They did their clinical trials before the variant strains became very apparent. Johnson & Johnson was testing its vaccine not only against the standard strain but they had the variants.”
Teachers in Chicago moved closer on Friday to striking over the city’s plan for reopening the nation’s third largest school district.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that the city had not yet reached a reopening deal with the Chicago Teachers Union and that it planned to welcome tens of thousands of students back to in-person classes on Monday.
The union has directed its members to work remotely until a deal is reached. It has vowed to strike if the district locks teachers out of its electronic systems or otherwise retaliates against them for staying home.
The battle over reopening Chicago’s schools has complex racial undercurrents. The mayor, who is Black, has argued that schools should open to prevent racial achievement gaps from widening. But the union says reopening now would be unsafe, and it claims that the majority of the district’s mostly Black and Hispanic families agree.
Only a third of Chicago families have decided to send their children back to school in person.
Prekindergarten and some special education students returned to in-person instruction on Jan. 11 and continued until last week, when the union directed their teachers to stay home. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade are expected to return on Monday.
Ms. Lightfoot said on Friday that the district expected teachers to be there for both groups of students. But given the current state of negotiations, she said, “we owe it to our students and families” to prepare for the possibility that the teachers could stay home.
Each side blames the other for the impasse.
Ms. Lightfoot said on Friday that the union’s leadership had refused to put areas of agreement in writing and purposefully disrupted some in-person instruction.
“We had three weeks of success, which is precisely why the C.T.U. leadership blew it up and created chaos,” she said.
But the union said it had been close to reaching a deal on reopening when Ms. Lightfoot stepped in “at the 11th hour and blew it to pieces.”
The government of the Philippines has extended a contentious policy that bars children under 15 from leaving their homes.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration this week overruled advice from a government task force on infectious diseases that had questioned the policy.
“They can glue their attention to TV the whole day,” Mr. Duterte told reporters, referring to children under lockdown. He added that the measure was a precaution to protect children from the coronavirus variant that was first detected in Britain and has been circulating in northern towns in the Philippines.
Parents of children who violate the lockdown can face prison time if convicted.
The government said on Friday that the policy would remain in place until at least the end of February. It also placed metropolitan Manila, the capital, and several other parts of the country under a “general community quarantine.” That means schools are closed and only businesses that are deemed essential — including malls — can remain open.
The new restrictions were announced on the same day that the government’s top official in charge of contact tracing, Benjamin Magalong, resigned under public pressure. He had been photographed without a mask at a party in the northern mountain resort town of Baguio.
The Philippines has reported more than half a million infections, the second highest caseload in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, and more than 10,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
Mr. Duterte’s concerns about the virus variant are understandable, said Richard Dy, a spokesman for the Child Rights Network, an advocacy group in the Philippines. But children can be relatively safe from Covid-19 in public places if health and safety protocols are observed, he added.
“Banning children from public places and confining them in their homes 24/7 can be detrimental to their physical and mental health,” Mr. Dy said.
Ida May Talic, who cares for her 7-year-old sister and 6-year-old niece in a Manila suburb, said that fighting boredom in the household was a daily challenge. She said the children were busy with online classes but complained about missing their friends.
“It also does not help that the internet connection can be intermittent at times,” Ms. Talic said. “Sometimes, they have to compete with the adults who are working from home who hog the signal.”
When the Australian Open begins next month, the grandstands may offer the closest thing to sports normalcy that the world has seen in nearly a year.
Up to 30,000 spectators a day will be allowed to attend the tennis tournament in Melbourne when it begins on Feb. 8, the sports minister of the state of Victoria said on Saturday. Melbourne is Victoria’s capital.
While a crowd of 30,000 is a rarity in international sports these days, overall attendance figures at the Australian Open will ultimately be down by about half from a normal year. Some 820,000 spectators attended the two-week tournament in 2020.
This year, organizers have created an intricate system in which spectators will only be allowed to travel within one of three zones at Melbourne Park, a move aimed at limiting social contact.
Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, has been negotiating for months with health officials about letting spectators into the event. He said Friday that the tournament would begin at 50 percent capacity. That could grow to 75 percent in the final week, he added, when action is limited to stadium courts.
The announcement by Victoria’s sports minister, Martin Pakula, came as hundreds of players who had traveled from overseas for the tournament entered their final days of quarantine. Most of them were allowed out of their hotel rooms for five hours a day for training and practice.
But 72 players who were forced to endure a hard 14-day lockdown were only able to begin practicing this weekend. That lockdown was imposed after testing revealed 10 acute positive cases among more than 1,000 people who traveled to Australia for the event, including one player.
Tiley said that ticket sales had begun to pick up in recent days, after coming to a standstill following the handful of positive tests and a backlash in the community against players who complained about having to stay in quarantine even though they continued to test negative.