Several new studies released on Wednesday offered encouraging news about the ability of widely used vaccines to protect against severe Covid-19 cases, including illness caused by some dangerous variants.
Two published studies found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was extraordinarily effective against severe disease caused by two variants, including the dominant one in the United States. And the results of an early-stage trial of the Moderna vaccine — though not published or vetted by scientists — suggested that a single dose given as a booster was effective against variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil, the company said.
The emergence of new variants, and whether vaccines are effective against them, is a subject of continued concern as a variant first detected in India, called B.1.617, spreads across the country. There is also a risk that further variants will arise there as the country’s outbreak grows, experts say. Another worrisome variant, P.1, is wreaking havoc across South America.
In the Pfizer studies, which were based on real-world use of the vaccine in Qatar and Israel, the two variants of focus were B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain and now detected in over 100 countries, and B.1.351, first identified in South Africa. The studies showed that the vaccine can prevent some of the most severe outcomes from Covid-19, such as pneumonia and death, caused by those variants.
“At this point in time, we can confidently say that we can use this vaccine, even in the presence of circulating variants of concern,” said Dr. Annelies Wilder-Smith, a researcher in infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
One of the Pfizer studies showed that the vaccine was 87 to 89.5 percent effective at preventing infection with B.1.1.7 among people who were at least two weeks past their second shot. It was 72.1 percent to 75 percent effective at preventing infection with B.1.351. The study was based on information about more than 200,000 people that was pulled from Qatar’s national Covid-19 databases from Feb. 1 to March 31.
Another study, conducted by researchers at Pfizer and at Israel’s Health Ministry, found that the vaccine was more than 95 percent effective at protecting against a coronavirus infection, hospitalization and death among fully vaccinated people 16 and older.
In the United States, experts now believe that attaining herd immunity is unlikely because of the spread of variants and hesitancy among some people in the country to be vaccinated. The variant that has caused the most alarm is B.1.1.7, which is about 60 percent more transmissible than original versions of the virus.
Moderna’s announcement was greeted cautiously, because the results of an early-stage trial have not been published or peer-reviewed. But the company said it was encouraged by results that suggested that a single booster shot of its vaccine would rapidly increase antibodies in vaccinated people, and that those antibodies were effective against the original form of the virus as well as the variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil.
A second booster specifically designed to counter the variant identified in South Africa produced an even stronger immune response, the company said.
The European Union is considering whether to follow the Biden administration’s decision to support a waiver of patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines as many poor and middle-income nations struggle to secure lifesaving doses.
The European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, stopped short of outright supporting President Biden in a speech on Thursday morning, but said the European Union was “also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”
“That is why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective,” she said, speaking at the Florence European University Institute.
The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend some intellectual property protections, a move that could allow drugmakers access to the trade secrets of how the viable vaccines have been made. But President Biden had come under increasing pressure to support the proposal, which was drafted by India and South Africa.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Thursday that he welcomed the Biden administration’s support for waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, but that the short-term priority was to donate existing doses to poorer countries rather than helping them produce the vaccines themselves.
“You can transfer the intellectual property to pharmaceutical manufacturers in Africa,” he said while visiting a vaccination center in southern Paris, but “they don’t have the platforms to produce mRNA vaccines.”
The European Union is one of the world’s largest producers, exporters and consumers of vaccines and has so far opposed activism at the W.T.O. level to recognize the pandemic as a huge emergency and remove protections on the vaccines. Doing so would allow them to ultimately be produced in larger volumes by manufacturers around the world.
Shares of some pharmaceutical companies fell on Wednesday after Mr. Biden’s announcement and continued dropping on Thursday. BioNTech shares in Germany were down about 15 percent since news of the administration’s decision. Novavax, which fell 5 percent Wednesday, fell another 3 percent in premarket trading on Wall Street.
As India recorded a single-day high in new coronavirus cases on Thursday, its vaccination campaign has been marred by shortages and states are competing against one another to get doses, limiting the government’s hope that the country can soon emerge from a devastating outbreak.
The Indian health ministry recorded about 410,000 cases in 24 hours, a new global high, and 3,980 deaths, the highest daily death toll in any country outside the United States. Experts believe the number of actual infections and deaths is much higher.
A second wave of infections exploded last month, and some Indian states reintroduced partial lockdowns, but daily vaccination numbers have fallen. The government said it had administered nearly two million vaccine doses on Thursday, far lower than the 3.5 million doses a day it reached in March. Over the past week, 1.6 million people on average were vaccinated daily in the country of 1.4 billion.
India’s pace of vaccinations has become a source of global concern as its outbreak devastates the nation and spreads into neighboring countries, and as a variant first identified there begins to be found around the world. The outbreak has prompted India to keep vaccine doses produced by its large drug manufacturing industry at home instead of exporting them, slowing down vaccination campaigns elsewhere.
In an effort to make doses more widely available within India, the authorities have allowed states and private health care providers to buy vaccines directly from manufacturers. But that has left state governments competing with one another for doses, and experts say it has added more troubles to a sluggish rollout. The authorities in Delhi, the capital, and several states have said they had to delay the expansion of vaccine access to younger age groups because of shortages.
India also lacks enough doses to meet the growing demand. Two domestic drug companies — the Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, and Bharat Biotech, which is making its own vaccine — are producing fewer than 100 million doses per month.
About 3 percent of India’s population has been fully vaccinated, and 9.2 percent of people have received at least one dose. Experts say that at the current rate the country is unlikely to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s target of inoculating 300 million people by August.
India has recorded 20.6 million coronavirus cases and more than 226,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
India’s government has said it will fast-track approvals of foreign-made vaccines, and on Wednesday the Biden administration said it would support waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines to increase supplies for lower-income countries.
But a waiver would need to win unanimous support at the World Trade Organization — and even then, experts say, India’s drug companies would need extensive technological and other support to produced doses.
“The drop in I.P. protections is only one element,” Anant Bhan, a health researcher at Melaka Manipal Medical College in southern India, said of intellectual property. Because of the additional steps required to begin making a vaccine on a huge scale, he said, “it is not going to mean increased access to vaccines in the near future.”
As Mr. Modi has declined to impose a nationwide lockdown like the one he brought in last year, states have adopted their own measures. On Thursday, the southern state of Kerala, which has one of the highest caseloads, announced a near-total lockdown until May 16.
Experts also worry that a crisis may be unfolding in India’s rural areas, where testing capacities are even more limited.
“My main concern is nonavailability of testing and the logistics of not getting people tested in rural areas,” said Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in northern India. “So we will never get the real numbers for either infection rates or deaths from many such quarters of India.”
The U.S. State Department has approved the departure of family members of U.S. government employees in India and is urging American citizens to take advantage of commercial flights out of the country. It said on Wednesday that it would approve the voluntary departure of nonemergency U.S. government employees.
On Thursday, Sri Lanka became the latest country to bar travelers from India, joining the United States, Britain, Australia and others.
After weeks of coronavirus patients flooding emergency rooms in Michigan, hospitalizations are falling. On some recent days, entire states have reported zero new coronavirus deaths. And in New York and Chicago, officials have vowed to fully reopen in the coming weeks, conjuring images of a vibrant summer of concerts, sporting events and packed restaurants.
Americans have entered a new, hopeful phase of the pandemic as the outlook has improved across the nation. The country is recording about 49,000 new cases a day, the lowest number since early October, and hospitalizations have plateaued at about 40,000, a similar level as the early fall.
“We’re in a really good spell and we can act accordingly,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, who said it made sense to loosen restrictions now, when the risk is lower than it might be this winter.
Yet even as a sense of hope spreads, there remain strong reasons for caution. Deaths are hovering around 700 a day — down from a peak of more than 3,000 in January. The pace of vaccinations in the country is slowing, and experts now believe that herd immunity in the United States may not be attainable. More transmissible variants of the virus are also spreading.
That could leave the coronavirus infecting tens of thousands of Americans and killing hundreds more each day for some time.
Although more than half of adults in the country have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a new national poll suggests that the American public’s willingness to get a Covid-19 vaccine is reaching a saturation point.
Nine percent of unvaccinated respondents said they intended to get a shot, according to the survey, published in the April edition of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor. And with federal authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for people age 12 to 15 expected imminently, parents’ eagerness to have their children vaccinated is also limited, the poll found.
Among the parents surveyed, three in 10 said they would have their children vaccinated immediately, and 26 percent said they wanted to wait and see how the vaccines were working. Eighteen percent said they would have their children vaccinated only if a child’s school required it, and 23 percent said they would not have their children vaccinated.
“We’re in a new stage of talking about vaccine demand,” said Mollyann Brodie, the executive vice president of Kaiser’s Public Opinion and Survey Research Program. “There’s not going to be a single strategy to increase demand across everyone who is left.”
Even so, public health experts say that while they still expect significant local and regional surges in the coming weeks, they do not think they will be as widespread or reach past peaks.
Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the health officer in Seattle and King County, said there was no playbook for an endgame to this pandemic, but he urged people to get vaccinated.
“I’m sure all of us want to avoid a long game of Whac-a-Mole with imposing and easing restrictions,” he said. “Vaccination is the cure.”
The police and the military in Fiji locked down a major hospital on the island of Viti Levu on Wednesday night, aiming to contain the country’s second coronavirus outbreak.
More than 400 patients and employees are inside the hospital, said Dr. James Fong, the health ministry’s permanent secretary. The lockdown was precipitated by the death of a patient in the intensive-care unit, the third known person to have died from the virus in Fiji. The virus is believed to have passed from the patient to at least two doctors.
Health workers hope to use the lockdown to determine which patients and workers might have come into contact with those infected. Officials said that those inside the hospital would be provided with food and other supplies. Sections of the hospital have been converted into intensive-care units in case other severe infections arise.
With a population of around one million, Fiji has about 50 active cases of the virus, out of 125 total cases reported since the start of the pandemic. Many of the active cases are thought to be of a coronavirus variant first discovered in India.
Recent social restrictions have often been ignored in the South Pacific island nation: The Fijian police have arrested more than 100 people for breaches, with many infractions said to be connected to alcohol or kava, a local intoxicant.
Dr. Fong said at a news conference this week that the country’s containment strategy could take months. “Every Fijian must be ready,” he said.
“We are not up against an identical enemy this time around,” Dr. Fong added. “The chains of transmission are more widespread, and the variant is more transmissible.”
In other news around the world:
Germany’s health minister said on Thursday that the authorities would drop prioritization and age limits for adults willing to be inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. The country had briefly paused and then restricted the use of the AstraZeneca shot to people over 60 because of very rare side effects. Supplies had been piling up in some places because many Germans prefer other vaccines.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines apologized to the public on Wednesday for having received a shot of a Covid-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese firm Sinopharm that has not been approved for use in his country — although his spokesman said on Thursday that Mr. Duterte would still receive a second dose of it. The president also asked that a donation of 1,000 doses be sent back to China. Mr. Duterte had broadcast his vaccination live on social media on Monday.
New Zealand said it would pause travel from Australia’s state of New South Wales after health officials there said that they were investigating a case of community transmission in Sydney, the first such case in the city in more than a month. Sydney officials have linked the infection to a traveler who returned from the United States and was isolating in a hotel, but have not established how the infection escaped hotel quarantine. The man’s wife also tested positive on Thursday. The cases have prompted Sydney to limit indoor gatherings to 20 people and require masks indoors from Thursday until Sunday. New Zealand and Australia began a quarantine-free travel bubble last month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said on Thursday that his government was considering resuming repatriation flights for Australian nationals in India after May 15, after a controversial travel ban last week made it a criminal offense for citizens and residents of Australia to enter the country from India. Critics accused the government of racism, but the authorities framed it as necessary to prevent transmission from a devastating outbreak in India.
A coastal town in Japan has provoked debate after spending nearly $230,000 in federal Covid-19 relief money on a 43-foot statue of a flying squid.
Noto, a fishing town where the squid is a delicacy, erected the statue in March in a bid to promote tourism after the pandemic subsides. The five-and-a-half-ton pink sea creature sits outside a squid-themed restaurant and tourist center.
Tetsuji Shimoyachi, a town official, said he hoped the statue would be “a driving-force attraction in the post-Covid period.”
But the giant squid’s unveiling provoked questions among some of the 16,000 residents of the town, roughly 180 miles northwest of Tokyo, who wondered whether there weren’t better uses of its emergency relief funds.
One Twitter user asked how the world would view the installation of a giant squid “in a country where vaccines were not provided, P.C.R. testing isn’t increased and the medical system has collapsed.”
Mr. Shimoyachi acknowledged that residents had raised concerns about whether the money should have been spent elsewhere.
He said that of the $6.2 million in coronavirus relief that the town received from the Japanese government last year, it had spent about $2.5 million on infection control measures and $1.3 million to promote local businesses and employment, and still had money left over after purchasing the squid statue. The town has recorded fewer than 30 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.
In all, Japan allocated $41 billion in emergency subsidies to municipalities last year to address the pandemic and its economic impact.
Mr. Shimoyachi said that Noto was historically a center of squid fishing in Japan, but that catches had significantly declined because of competition from Chinese and North Korean boats. Tourism has also fallen, which led the town to build the tourist center in a bid to attract visitors — although Mr. Shimoyachi said that it was too soon to start a marketing campaign.
Japan has controlled the virus better than many countries but has faced a recent spike in cases in Tokyo and other municipalities. The surge has prompted a new round of economic restrictions, criticism of Japan’s slow vaccine rollout and questions over whether the country should proceed with the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in July.
Robin Harper, an administrative assistant at a preschool in Martha’s Vineyard, grew up showering every day. “It’s what you did,” she said.
But when the pandemic forced her indoors and away from the public, she started showering once a week. The new practice felt environmentally virtuous, practical and freeing — and it has stuck.
“Don’t get me wrong — I like showers,” said Ms. Harper, 43, who has returned to work. “But it’s one thing off my plate. I’m a mom, I work full-time, and it’s one less thing I have to do.”
The pandemic has upended the use of zippered pants and changed many people’s eating and drinking habits. And there are now indications that it has caused some Americans to become more spartan when it comes to ablutions.
Parents say that their teenage children are forgoing daily showers. After the British news media reported on a YouGov survey showing that 17 percent of people in Britain had abandoned daily showers during the pandemic, many on Twitter said they had done the same.
Heather Whaley, 49, a writer in Reading, Conn., said that her shower use had dropped 20 percent in the past year. After the pandemic forced her into lockdown, she said, she began considering why she was showering every day.
“Do I need to? Do I want to?” she said. “The act of taking a shower became less a matter of function and more of a matter of doing something for myself that I enjoyed.”
The calls come at all hours, sometimes 15 a day, from some of India’s most oppressed and severely ill people, buzzing a cellphone that belongs to Dolly Arjun, an Indian-American physician assistant in Boston.
A few years ago, Ms. Arjun founded a telehealth program to provide free health care to members of India’s Indigenous tribes and to Dalits, who are at the lowest rungs of India’s entrenched caste system and have long faced discrimination. Dalits are typically the last to receive assistance in humanitarian disasters and often live in impoverished rural villages with no hospitals, medical care or schools.
Now, with a devastating wave of coronavirus infections surging across India, Dalits are facing a new peril, Ms. Arjun said. She said she was desperate to help, even though she is emotionally exhausted after a year of working with Covid-19 patients in Massachusetts.
“Tons of people are dying,” Ms. Arjun said. “This is just a human to human need.”
Her focus is not just Hippocratic. She is Dalit herself, a rarity among Indian medical professionals in the United States, most of whom come from upper-caste urban families. “The only reason they might know a Dalit person is because it’s their servant at home,” Ms. Arjun said.
Her telemedicine program has health workers in India who can translate for patients in local languages, but finding medical professionals in the United States to join the effort has not been easy, she said. Still, Ms. Arjun has recruited two physicians.
Patients contact the group through WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube, and the medical professionals call back on video. Often their first task is to reassure patients who have little understanding of the coronavirus or the appropriate medical treatments, Ms. Arjun said.
“Part of what’s happening now is patients are being told Covid is going to kill you, so they are panicked,” Ms. Arjun said.
She noted that in one Indian state the government has been broadly distributing packets of medications — including 25 days-worth of antibiotics, which cannot treat viruses — to residents, regardless of whether they have tested positive for Covid-19 or show symptoms.
Sometimes, however, the telehealth calls detect life-or-death emergencies. In late April, Ms. Arjun logged onto a WhatsApp video call with a young Dalit man and his 60-year-old father, who was at home with breathing problems in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where it was around midnight.
“They didn’t know what to do,” she said. “They told us there were no hospitals or oxygen available, and they hadn’t seen a doctor.”
After assessing the man, Ms. Arjun urged the family to check to see whether any hospital beds were available instead of assuming that they were full. “It took a lot of convincing,” she said.
The next day, he was admitted and began to improve, but the hospital was running out of oxygen. Ms. Arjun put out a call on several WhatsApp groups for an oxygen cylinder, though the family did not know the name of the hospital and then fell out of contact.
Days later, she learned that the man had died.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A teenager shot to death after kicking a police officer. A young man bleeding out on the street as protesters shout for help. Police officers firing on unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarming overhead, tanks rolling through neighborhoods, explosions echoing in the streets. A mother crying for her son.
“We are destroyed,” said Milena Meneses, 39, whose only son, Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.
Colombians demonstrating over the past week against the poverty and inequality that have worsened the lives of millions since the pandemic began have been met with a powerful crackdown by their government, which has responded to the protests with the same militarized police force it often uses against rebel fighters and organized crime.
The clashes have left at least 24 people dead, most of them demonstrators, and at least 87 missing. They have also exacerbated the anger with officials in the capital, Bogotá. Protesters say the government is increasingly out of touch with people’s lives.
Experts say this explosion of frustration could presage unrest across Latin America, where several countries face the combustible mix of an unrelenting pandemic, growing hardship and plummeting government revenue.
“We are all connected,” said León Valencia, a political analyst, noting that past protests had jumped from country to country. “This could spread across the region.”
The marches began last week after Mr. Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to close a pandemic-related economic shortfall, and since then the crowds have grown. Demonstrators now include teachers, doctors, students, members of major unions, longtime activists and Colombians who have never before taken to the streets.
Latin America was one of the regions hardest hit by the virus last year, with cemeteries filling past capacity, the sick dying while awaiting care in hospital hallways, and family members spending the night in lines to buy medical oxygen in an attempt to keep loved ones alive.
The region’s economies shrank an average of 7 percent. In many places, unemployment, particularly among the young, spiked. And in the first few months of 2021, the Covid-19 situation has worsened.
More than 106 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated. Airlines are resuming overseas flights. Come summer, fully vaccinated people traveling from America will once again be welcome across Europe.
But the reality is more sobering.
Globally, more new coronavirus cases were reported in recent weeks than at any point since the onset of the pandemic. The numbers are being driven by an uncontrolled outbreak in India, but also account for troubling trends among European destinations popular with Americans, from France and Germany to Italy and Spain.
“My doomsday scenario is a mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations in a setting where there is high viral load and high viral transmission,” said Dr. Sarah Fortune, the chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Even if international tourists could travel safely, securely and without risking the well-being of their hosts, visitors may face yet another impediment: The destinations may lack many of their usual draws. In Paris, bars and restaurants have been closed since the end of October, as are museums.