It’s one of the world’s most in-demand commodities and has become a new currency for international diplomacy: Countries with the means or the know-how are using coronavirus vaccines to curry favor or thaw frosty relations.
India, the unmatched vaccine manufacturing power, is giving away millions of doses to neighbors friendly and estranged. It is trying to counter China, which has made doling out shots a central plank of its foreign relations. And the United Arab Emirates, drawing on its oil riches, is buying shots on behalf of its allies.
But the strategy carries risks.
India and China have vast populations of their own that they need to inoculate. Although there are few signs of grumbling in either country, that could change as the public watches doses be sold or donated abroad.
“Indians are dying. Indians are still getting the disease,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “I could understand if our needs had been fulfilled and then you had given away the stuff. But I think there is a false moral superiority that you are trying to put across where you say we are giving away our stuff even before we use it ourselves.”
For India, its soft-power vaccine drive has given it a rejoinder to China after years of watching the Chinese make political gains in its own backyard — in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and elsewhere. Beijing offered deep pockets and swift answers when it came to big investments that India, with a layered bureaucracy and slowing economy, has struggled to match.
So India has sent vaccine doses to Nepal, a country that has fallen increasingly under China’s influence. And Sri Lanka, in the midst of a diplomatic tug of war between New Delhi and Beijing, is getting doses from both.
The donating countries are making their offerings at a time when the United States and other rich nations are scooping up the world’s supplies. Poorer countries are frantically trying to get their own, a disparity that the World Health Organization recently warned has put the world “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.”
With their health systems tested as never before, many countries are eager to take what they are offered — and the donors could reap some political good will in reward.
“Instead of securing a country by sending troops, you can secure the country by saving lives, by saving their economy, by helping with their vaccination,” said Dania Thafer, the executive director of the Gulf International Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
Still, efforts to use vaccines to win hearts and minds aren’t always successful.
The United Arab Emirates, which is rolling out vaccines faster than any country except Israel, has begun donating Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine doses that it purchased to countries where it has strategic or commercial interests.
But in Egypt some doctors balked at using them, because they said they did not trust the data the U.A.E. and the vaccine’s Chinese maker had released about trials.
And the government of Malaysia, one of the Emirates’ biggest trading partners, declined an offer of 500,000 doses, saying that regulators would have to independently approve the Sinopharm vaccine. After regulatory approval, Malaysia bought vaccines instead from Pfizer of the United States, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine and one made by another Chinese company, Sinovac.
Facing a shortage of coronavirus vaccine doses, Los Angeles will temporarily close five of its inoculation sites, including one of the country’s largest, at Dodger Stadium, the mayor said on Wednesday.
By Thursday the city will have exhausted its supply of the Moderna vaccine for first-dose appointments, Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference. The centers will be closed on Friday and Saturday with plans to reopen by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, he said.
“We’re vaccinating people faster than new vials are arriving here in Los Angeles,” Mr. Garcetti said. “I’m concerned as your mayor that our vaccine supply is uneven, it’s unpredictable and too often inequitable.”
Mr. Garcetti said the city had received only 16,000 new doses of the vaccine this week, about the same number it gives out a single day.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported more than 3,400 new cases and 141 new deaths. Hospitalizations are down to about 3,700, the lowest number in months, Mr. Garcetti said.
Despite shortage concerns, the city will continue its mobile vaccination program, Mr. Garcetti said. “We can’t afford to see the outbreaks and, quite frankly, the unequal deaths that we’re seeing in communities of color,” he said.
Dodger Stadium opened as a vaccination site on Jan. 15, with many reporting long wait times and logistical issues. In the weeks leading up to its opening, Mr. Garcetti and other local and state officials had come under intense scrutiny for their handling of the virus and the vaccination rollout.
Similar problems have cropped up across the United States as demand far outpaces supply and vaccine providers struggle to predict how many doses will arrive.
Many were clever fakes.
They were stamped with the 3M logo and shipped in boxes that read, “Made in the U.S.A.”
But these supposed N95 masks were not produced by 3M and weren’t made in the United States, federal investigators said on Wednesday.
They were counterfeits, and millions were bought by hospitals, medical institutions and government agencies in at least five states, the federal authorities said as they announced an investigation.
Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the masks were dangerous because they might not offer the same level of protection against the coronavirus as genuine N95s.
“We don’t know if they meet the standards,” said Brian Weinhaus, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
Cassie Sauer, the president and chief executive of the Washington State Hospital Association, said that about two million counterfeit masks might have made it into the state. They were “really good fakes,” she said.
“They look, they feel, they fit and they breathe like a 3M mask,” Ms. Sauer said.
News of the investigation came the same day the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence branch warned law enforcement agencies that criminals have been selling counterfeit coronavirus vaccines online for “hundreds of dollars per dose.”
In a bid to get more residents age 75 and older vaccinated, Massachusetts officials say they will also inoculate the people accompanying them, regardless of age, to mass vaccination sites, which can be confusing to navigate.
“The idea for a mass vaccination site can seem a bit daunting,” Marylou Sudders, the secretary for health and human services in Massachusetts, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The knowledge that the person accompanying them to the vaccination site will also be inoculated, Ms. Sudders said, may “bring an extra level of comfort to those who may be hesitant or don’t want to bother their caregiver or loved one or a good friend to book an appointment.”
Massachusetts has administered almost a million vaccine doses at nearly 130 sites statewide, said Gov. Charlie Baker. About 10 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 2.8 percent have received two doses, according to a New York Times tracker.
Starting on Thursday, companions can schedule their vaccine along with that of the older resident.
Joan Hatem-Roy, the chief executive of Elder Services of Merrimack Valley, a nonprofit group in northeastern Massachusetts, called the idea “a game changer.”
“I get nervous going to a Patriots game at Gillette, so I can imagine a senior trying to think about going to Gillette Stadium,” one of the vaccination sites, Ms. Hatem-Roy said.
Some expressed concern that younger people who are less susceptible to serious illness from the virus might be vaccinated before people who are 65 or older or who have chronic health conditions. But Mr. Baker said the immediate goal was to make sure people 75 and older are vaccinated.
“Those communities are far more likely to lose their life and get hospitalized as a result of Covid,” he said. “We want to make sure that we make it as easy as we possibly can for folks who fall into that over-75 category to get vaccinated and to get vaccinated early in this process.”
The state’s decision to vaccinate companions came as a surprise to Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, who said Massachusetts had not moved as quickly as he had expected on vaccinations. He said he would rather see more vulnerable groups be deemed eligible for the vaccination first and for any transportation issues to be resolved without companions getting shots.
“I do know that the governor is feeling a lot of pressure to improve the performance in the state,” Dr. Jha said. “That may be part of the motivation for doing this, because it will certainly bump up those numbers.”
He did not expect other states to follow suit — at least not right away. But Dr. Jha said it might be different in April or May, when the vaccine supply may outweigh the demand.
In some places, a similar model has been tried on a smaller scale.
In Albemarle County, Va., 70 caregivers and family care providers for people with intellectual disabilities were vaccinated, according to local affiliate NBC29. In Texas, older and disabled residents said they wanted their home health workers to be vaccinated, but many workers were declining the inoculation, according to The Texas Tribune.
“I don’t know how you carefully police that,” he said. “There are bad actors who may try to manipulate this.”
Ms. Sudders offered her own warning on Wednesday, urging older residents’ not to accept offers from strangers to be their vaccine companions.
In today’s edition of the Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt writes:
The number of new coronavirus cases continues to plummet, as does the number of Americans hospitalized with symptoms. Deaths have also begun to decline. And the number of daily vaccination shots has nearly tripled over the last month.
It’s been a long time since the virus news was as encouraging as it is right now.
The overall situation is still bad. The virus is spreading more rapidly in the U.S. than in almost any other large country, and more than 2,500 Americans are dying daily. Newly contagious variants may create future outbreaks. For now, though, things are getting better — and a combination of vaccinations, mask wearing and social distancing has the potential to sustain the recent progress.
Here is The Morning’s latest virus report card, with help from five charts — and with an emphasis on what will shape the next few weeks.
The drop is real
The recent decline in new virus cases is larger than any of last year’s declines:
Since reaching a peak on Jan. 8 — related to holiday gatherings — the number of confirmed new daily cases has fallen almost 60 percent. The decline in actual cases is probably somewhat smaller, because the volume of testing has also fallen over the last few weeks. Fewer tests lead to fewer reported cases.
But most of the decline in the chart above is real. We know that because the percentage of tests that came back positive has also dropped sharply (to 7 percent, from 14 percent on Jan. 8). The number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms is falling, too:
Most important, deaths have begun to decline:
And deaths are likely to decline more. The fatality trends typically trail behind the trends in diagnosed cases by about three weeks — which means the sharp recent drop in cases is only now starting to affect the death numbers. Over the next two weeks, the number of daily deaths will probably fall below 2,000, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, predicts, and it could drop below 1,000 by next month.
We’re slowly building immunity
The main cause of the decline appears to be that a significant share of people now have at least some immunity to the virus. That also helps explain the global decline in newly diagnosed cases:
In the U.S., about 110 million people have likely had the virus (including unconfirmed cases), researchers say. Another 33 million have received at least one vaccine shot.
Combined, these two groups make up about 43 percent of all Americans, which appears to be enough to slow the spread. “Though it is difficult to know for sure,” Andrew Brouwer, a University of Michigan epidemiologist, told The Wall Street Journal, “we may be approaching herd protection.”
Still, this protection does not ensure a continuing decline in cases. Most Americans still haven’t had the virus.
Will we become complacent?
The first thing to watch in coming days is whether Super Bowl parties turned into superspreader events that have caused new outbreaks.
The next question will be whether the recent decline causes Americans to become lax again, as happened both last summer and fall. New York, Massachusetts and other states have begun lifting some restrictions, and many public experts are worried that politicians will go too far in this direction. Doing so in coming weeks would be especially dangerous because of the growing spread of more contagious virus variants.
“These contagious new variants really heighten the risk,” Apoorva Mandavilli, a Times science reporter, told me. “The good news is that we know what to do: Wear a mask or maybe two, stay as far from others as you can, meet people only outside or at least open the windows, and wash your hands often.” Failing to follow this advice could be more damaging with the variants than with the original version of the virus.
Adding to the risk is the possibility that some people who have already had the virus remain vulnerable to reinfection from one of the variants. If that turns out to be the case — as early research suggests — vaccination will become even more important.
The vaccination acceleration
The U.S. vaccination campaign got off to a bad start. The Trump administration vowed to give shots to 20 million people by the end of 2020 — and reached fewer than three million. But the pace sped up in the administration’s final weeks, and the Biden administration has further accelerated it:
The bottom line: The pandemic is in retreat. What happens next will depend mostly on three factors: 1) how many Americans wear masks and remain socially distant; 2) how contagious the new variants are; and 3) how quickly the vaccines — which have virtually eliminated the worst Covid symptoms — get into people’s arms.
Instagram took down the account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the political scion and prominent anti-vaccine activist, on Wednesday over false information related to the coronavirus.
“We removed this account for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a statement.
Mr. Kennedy, the son of the former senator and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, worked for decades as an environmental lawyer but is now better known as an anti-vaccine crusader. A 2019 study found that two groups including his nonprofit, now called Children’s Health Defense, had funded more than half of Facebook advertisements spreading misinformation about vaccines.
He has found an even broader audience during the pandemic on platforms like Instagram, where he had 800,000 followers. Though Mr. Kennedy has said he is not opposed to vaccines as long as they are safe, he regularly endorses discredited links between vaccines and autism and has argued that it is safer to contract the coronavirus than to be inoculated against it.
Facebook is becoming more aggressive in its efforts to stamp out vaccine misinformation, saying this week that it would remove posts with erroneous claims about the coronavirus, coronavirus vaccines and vaccines in general, whether they are paid advertisements or user-generated posts. In addition to Mr. Kennedy’s Instagram account, the company said it had removed eight other Instagram accounts and Facebook pages on Wednesday under its updated policies.
They did not include Mr. Kennedy’s Facebook page, which was still active as of early Thursday and makes many of the same baseless claims to more than 300,000 followers. The company said it did not automatically disable accounts across its platforms and that there were no plans to take down Mr. Kennedy’s Facebook account “at this time.”
Children’s Health Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Members of Mr. Kennedy’s family have spoken out against his anti-vaccine efforts, including a brother, sister and niece who accused him of spreading “dangerous misinformation” in a column they wrote for Politico in 2019. Another niece, Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, a doctor at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, wrote an opinion essay in The New York Times in December challenging his claims.
“I love my uncle Bobby,” she wrote. “I admire him for many reasons, chief among them his decades-long fight for a cleaner environment. But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong.”
Even as layoffs in the United States remain extraordinarily high by historical standards, unemployment claims continue to decline as coronavirus cases and restrictions on activity recede.
New claims for unemployment benefits declined last week for the fourth week in a row, the Labor Department reported Thursday morning.
Last week brought 813,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 850,000 the previous week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, last week’s figure was 793,000, a decrease of 19,000.
There were 335,000 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits. That total, which was not seasonally adjusted, was down from 369,000 the week before.
New coronavirus cases have fallen by a third from the level two weeks ago, prompting states like California and New York to relax restrictions on indoor dining and other activities.
“We’re stuck at this very high level of claims, but activity is picking up,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace. Indeed, job postings at ZipRecruiter stand at 11.3 million, close to the 11.4 million level before the pandemic hit.
The improving pandemic situation has eased the strain on dining establishments, Ms. Pollak added. More generally, however, the leisure and hospitality industry is still under pressure.
Plenty of other signs of weakness remain. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, underscoring the challenges for the nearly 10 million unemployed.
President Biden cited the weak showing to press for approval of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. It would send $1,400 to many Americans, provide aid to states and cities, and extend unemployment benefits that are due to expire for millions in mid-March.
Ms. Pollak said postings by employers at ZipRecruiter in recent days offered hope. “We’ve seen employers smash all of our expectations and show a great deal of exuberance,” she said.
A Texas doctor with only six hours to administer expiring doses of a Covid-19 vaccine inoculated 10 people, but the move got him fired and charged with stealing the doses.
The doctor, Hasan Gokal, had scrambled in December by making house calls and directing people to his home outside Houston. Some were acquaintances; others, strangers. A bed-bound nonagenarian. A woman in her 80s with dementia. A mother with a child who uses a ventilator.
After midnight, and with just minutes before the vaccine became unusable, Dr. Gokal gave the last dose to his wife, who has a pulmonary disease that leaves her short of breath.
For his actions, Dr. Gokal was fired from his government job and then charged with stealing 10 vaccine doses worth a total of $135 — a misdemeanor that sent his name and mug shot rocketing around the globe.
“It was my world coming down,” he said in a telephone interview on Friday. “To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life.”
The matter is playing out as pandemic-weary Americans scour websites and cross state lines chasing rumors in pursuit of a medicine in short supply.
Late last month, a judge dismissed the charge as groundless, but the local district attorney vowed to present the matter to a grand jury. And while prosecutors portray the doctor as a cold opportunist, his lawyer says he acted responsibly — even heroically.
“Everybody was looking at this guy and saying, ‘I got my mother waiting for a vaccine, my grandfather waiting for a vaccine,’” the lawyer, Paul Doyle, said. “They were thinking, ‘This guy is a villain.’”
When the coronavirus exploded across Europe in March, it realigned city life, shifting office workers to their homes, shuttering the hospitality sector and reshuffling life for millions.
Unshackled from offices — many for the first time in their working lives — city dwellers throughout Europe began to leave, some to avoid the virus but others to escape cramped and pricey apartments and to connect more with the natural world.
Now, nearly a year after the first lockdowns and with months more restrictions looming, the easy assumption that most of the Covid-19 exiles would naturally return once the virus was tamed is being questioned. In the reverse of the old song, the question now is not how you keep them down on the farm, but how you dissuade them from moving there for good.
For city planners and urban design experts, that means beginning to grapple with problems that have long plagued many of these cities — housing affordability, safe transportation and access to green space — and have grown more urgent in the pandemic.
More broadly, cities will have to address desires about connecting with nature and “reconnecting with life,” said Philipp Rode, the executive director of L.S.E. Cities, a research center at the London School of Economics.
A similar urban exodus has occurred in the United States during the pandemic, with affluent New Yorkers retreating to second homes and Silicon Valley techies scattering across the country. In fact, it might be even more pronounced in the United States than in Europe.
“Broadly speaking, place loyalty in Europe is significantly higher than in the U.S.,” Dr. Rode said, pointing to past studies showing that even among cities in economic decline, those in Europe suffered relatively less population loss. “A lot of these places have very deep histories, very deep culture.”
Nevertheless, many European cities are introducing things like pedestrian and cycle-friendly commuting options and expanded green spaces. Milan, hit hard by the first wave of the virus, has designated more than 20 miles of cycling lanes as well as “parklets” in former parking lots.
President Biden wants racial equity to be at the essence of a fair national coronavirus response. And Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale epidemiologist who grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is in charge of the effort.
Dr. Nunez-Smith, the chairwoman of Mr. Biden’s Covid-19 equity task force, spoke to The New York Times about the challenges ahead in her role.
She is charged with advising the president on how to allocate resources and reach out to underserved populations to fight a pandemic that has taken a devastating toll on people of color. Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely as white people to die from Covid-19.
“Make no mistake about it — beating this pandemic is hard work,” Dr. Nunez-Smith told reporters on Wednesday, after the White House named the members of the task force. “And beating this pandemic while making sure that everyone in every community has a fair chance to stay safe or to regain their health, well, that’s the hard work and the right work.”
Q. You’ve been in office just a few weeks. What have you learned?
A. What’s great about this is being public facing. I hear from everyday Americans every day. People write all the time with their own experiences.
Obviously you cannot cure racial disparities in health care overnight, so what are you aiming for, at least in the near term? And then in the long term?
We’re charged with rapid response recommendations and then paving the way for equity in the recovery. We talk a lot about vaccines, but we can’t forget about everything else. We think about frontline essential workers and others who still have challenges in terms of having inadequate protection in the workplace. Access to testing is also uneven.
It’s exciting to see new technologies emerge, but we also have to make sure that everybody can benefit from all of the scientific discoveries.
Sister André has lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, two World Wars and “many sad events,” she once said. As Europe’s oldest known person, she turns 117 on Thursday and has now accomplished another feat: defeating the coronavirus, with barely any complication.
“She’s recovered, along with all the residents here,” said David Tavella, the spokesman at the Ste. Catherine Labouré nursing home in Toulon, a city in southeastern France, where Sister André lives. “She is calm, very radiant and she is quite looking forward to celebrating her 117th birthday,” he said, adding that the home’s most famous resident was resting on Wednesday and needed a break from interviews.
The coronavirus swept through the nursing home last month, just as nurses began consulting residents about vaccinations; 81 of its 88 residents became infected, including Sister André, and 11 eventually died.
Mr. Tavella said that until last month no case had been detected in the nursing home since the beginning of the pandemic. Still, the outbreak was a stark reminder that the virus has been devastating in places where the most vulnerable reside, even with stringent restrictions that have turned many care homes into fortresses.
Sister André remained isolated for weeks and felt a bit “patraque,” or off color, Mr. Tavella said, but she blamed the virus and not her age. She slept more than usual, but she prayed and remained asymptomatic. This week, she became the oldest known person to have survived Covid-19.
“She kept telling me, ‘I’m not afraid of Covid because I’m not afraid of dying, so give my vaccine doses to those who need them,’” Mr. Tavella said.
Sister André’s story has made headlines in France, providing some uplifting news in a country where thousands of nursing home residents have died.
France began vaccinating health care workers this week, but the authorities have faced criticism for a sluggish rollout as France continues to struggle with a rising number of infections, and no end to restrictions in sight. As of Wednesday, 2.2 million people had been vaccinated, less than 3 percent of the population.
In other developments around the world:
The coronavirus variant first detected in Britain is going “to sweep the world, in all probability,” the director of the country’s genetic surveillance program, Sharon Peacock, told the BBC on Thursday. The variant, known as B.1.1.7., has been detected in 75 countries, including the United States.
A cougar has tested positive for the coronavirus, the first such instance in the United States. And a tiger at the same Texas facility that exhibits wild animals also tested positive, the Department of Agriculture said on Wednesday.
After several cats at the facility, which the department did not name, began coughing and wheezing, the facility took samples for testing.
The National Veterinary Services Laboratory confirmed the infection in the two cats. While several tigers in the United States have caught the virus, along with lions, snow leopards and many domestic cats, this was the first report of a cougar.
The animals have mild symptoms and are expected to recover, according to the announcement, as have other zoo cats that have been infected with the virus.
Dogs, mink and gorillas have also caught the coronavirus in the United States. The Agriculture department keeps a list, updated weekly, of all confirmed tests.
Farmed mink infected with the virus have passed it to humans in some cases, which caused Denmark to cull its entire farmed mink population, about 17 million. There is no evidence of domestic or zoo animals passing the virus to humans, and advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely concerns how people who have Covid-19 should avoid infecting their pets.