A fast-spreading coronavirus variant first observed in Britain has gained a mutation that could make it harder to control with vaccines, Public Health England reported on Monday. It is the latest evidence that the virus is undergoing a worrisome evolution worldwide.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7, first came to light in December. Researchers determined that it had rapidly became more common across Britain in just a couple of months.
Experiments in test tubes suggest that some of its mutations allow the coronavirus to hold on to cells more tightly.
Since B.1.1.7’s discovery in Britain, the variant has been reported in 72 other countries. The United States confirmed its first case of B.1.1.7 on Dec. 29. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 467 samples of the variant in 32 states.
In its latest analysis, Public Health England estimated that the variant’s rate of infection is 25 percent to 40 percent higher than that of other forms of the coronavirus. Some preliminary evidence suggests that it may also cause more deaths.
Several lines of evidence suggest that vaccines will work against B.1.1.7. On Thursday, the vaccine maker Novavax announced that its British trial found no evidence that B.1.1.7 could evade the vaccine’s defenses.
But in South Africa, where a variant called B.1.351 has surged to dominance, the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have both been less effective in trials.
That variant has been reported in 31 countries so far. In the United States, it has turned up in Maryland and in South Carolina.
Whenever these variants infect a host and multiply, there’s a small chance that they will gain yet another mutation. Most of the mutations are of little concern, but scientists have worried that by mutating, these already dangerous variants could evolve into more fearsome forms.
Even if a mutation alters a coronavirus variant, that’s no guarantee it will have the same effect in another variant. The effect of each new mutation depends on all the other mutations carried by the virus.
Public Health England said that the worrisome mutation known as E484K appears to have arisen more than once in the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variants in the United Kingdom. Two variants in Brazil have also been discovered to have independently gained the same mutation. This repeated emergence is a powerful clue that it might provide coronaviruses with a competitive edge.
Moderna and other companies are already preparing by developing vaccines to work against the E484K mutation. Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said that while seeing the mutation known as E484K spread was not good, it was impossible yet to say whether it would make these coronaviruses not only more contagious but more resistant to vaccines. “We’ll have to wait for data,” he said.
Last week, scientists reviewed all the coronavirus genomes sequenced in Britain. They discovered 11 coronavirus variants that belong to the B.1.1.7 lineage that also carried the worrying mutation.
Exactly why the E484K mutation turns up so often is a mystery. Nicholas Davies, a mathematical biologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was possible that it enabled the coronavirus to evade antibodies created by previous infections from other variants. “E484K may well convey a fitness advantage in settings where there is existing immunity,” he said.
But he cautioned that the 11 variants out of over 200,000 samples were exceedingly rare, and it was possible that they might actually lose against other B.1.1.7 viruses without the mutation. “I think it’s potentially concerning, but hard to tell from the report what it means,” he said.
Portugal, struggling to contain an outbreak that has led to the highest death rate in Europe, has rapidly filled the beds in intensive care units established for Covid-19 patients and is being forced to create spaces by diverting spaces meant for other critical care patients.
With emergency rooms overwhelmed, particularly in the capital region of Lisbon, hospitals have asked patients to try to treat themselves at home, and the government has reached out to other European countries for assistance.
Some patients have also been airlifted to island hospitals or moved to hospitals in regions not as badly affected.
For those who do show up at hospitals in Lisbon, they are finding a system on the brink, with scores of people lining up outside and waiting to be diagnosed in idling ambulances parked outside.
“We are managing the full capacity of the country,” Pedro Siza Vieira, the Portuguese economy minister, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. While new infections appeared to be falling in some regions, the outbreak in Lisbon was still raging.
“We are looking at a couple of weeks that will be difficult,” he added.
Mr. Siza Vieira himself contracted Covid-19 last month, and about a third of the government’s ministers have also caught the illness recently, or had to isolate after being in contact with a person who had Covid-19.
Portugal, a nation of about 10 million on the Iberian Peninsula, is in the grips of its worst crisis of the pandemic, and 5,000 people died in January.
During the first wave of Covid-19, Portugal was one of the success stories of Europe, after applying a strict lockdown that helped keep its death toll low, particularly in comparison with neighboring Spain.
But since Christmas, Portugal has faced a surge in infections and fatalities.
Government officials have said that the crisis has been amplified by the spread of the Covid-19 variant first discovered in Britain. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal told a recent news conference that the variant accounted for more than 50 percent of new infections in his country.
Mr. Siza Vieira, the economy minister, said on Tuesday, “We don’t have evidence of the Brazilian variant being significantly active in Portugal while we have evidence that the U.K. variant explains more than half of new cases, particularly in the Lisbon area.”
However, British officials have expressed their own concern about the spread in Portugal of the variant first discovered in Brazil, leading Britain to announce travel restrictions on its European neighbor.
The travel ban was part of wave of new border closures around the world as countries raced to vaccinate their populations while trying to limit the spread of new variants.
Whatever is driving infections in Portugal, new cases are only now starting to show signs of slowing after a national lockdown was reinstated in mid-January.
The defense minister in Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that the country was preparing to dispatch army personnel and equipment to Portugal, noting that all of those deployed would be vaccinated.
And Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria announced on Twitter that his country would welcome some patients transferred from Portugal, without detailing how many.
Ricardo Baptista Leite, an opposition lawmaker in Portugal who is also a medical doctor and head of the public health department at the Catholic University of Portugal, said he was grateful for the support.
“We now have international aid coming in to try to save as many lives as we can,” he said. “But the time will come to assess what went wrong.”
Although low-income communities of color have been affected disproportionately by the coronavirus, health officials in many cities say that people from wealthier, largely white neighborhoods have been flooding vaccination appointment systems and taking an outsize share of the limited supply.
People in underserved neighborhoods have been tripped up by a confluence of obstacles, including registration phone lines and websites that can take hours to navigate, and lack of transportation or time off from jobs to get to appointments. And skepticism about the shots continues to be pronounced in Black and Latino communities, depressing sign-up rates.
Early vaccination data is incomplete, but it points to the divide. In the first weeks of the rollout, 12 percent of people inoculated in Philadelphia have been Black, in a city whose population is 44 percent Black. In Miami-Dade County, only about 7 percent of the vaccine recipients have been Black, even though Black residents make up nearly 17 percent of the population and are dying from Covid-19 at a rate that is more than 60 percent higher than that of white people.
In data released last weekend for New York City, white people had received nearly half of the doses, while Black and Latino residents were starkly underrepresented based on their share of the population.
And in Washington, D.C., 40 percent of the nearly 7,000 appointments initially made available to people 65 and older were taken by residents of its wealthiest and whitest ward, which is in the city’s upper northwest section and has had only 5 percent of its Covid-19 deaths.
Alarmed, many cities are trying to rectify inequities. Baltimore, for example, will offer shots in housing complexes for older adults, going door to door.
“The key with the mobile approach is you can get a lot of hard-hit folks at the same time — if we just get enough supply to do that,” said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.
Officials in Wake County, N.C., which includes Raleigh, are first attempting to reach people 75 and over who live in nine ZIP codes that have had the highest rates of Covid-19. “We weren’t going to prioritize those who simply had the fastest internet service or best cell provider and got through fastest and first,” said Stacy Beard, a county spokeswoman.
Fixing the problem is tricky, however. Officials fear that singling out neighborhoods for priority access could invite lawsuits alleging race preference. To a large extent, the ability of localities to address inequities depends on how much control they have over their own vaccine allocations and whether their political leadership aligns with that of supervising county or state authorities.
The experiences of Dallas and the District of Columbia, for example, have resulted in very different outcomes. Dallas County, predominantly Democratic, has been thwarted by the state health department, under the aegis of a Republican governor, which quashed the county’s plan to give vaccines to certain minority neighborhoods first. But Washington was able to quickly change its course.
MELBOURNE, Australia — Just days after residents of Perth, Australia’s fourth-largest city, were ordered to stay in because of the coronavirus, some were forced to flee their homes on Tuesday as a ferocious wildfire bore down on the city’s outskirts.
The blaze northeast of Perth, which began on Monday and was fueled by hot, dry and windy conditions, was out of control by about 2 a.m. on Tuesday, officials said. Residents described a confused scramble in the middle of the night, as they were unsure where they were supposed to go in light of the lockdown rules.
“We wish it would be either one or the other, not both,” Gemma Martin, a 33-year-old hospitality worker who fled with her three children, said of the fire and the lockdown.
By Tuesday afternoon, close to 20,000 acres had been razed and dozens of properties had been destroyed.
“It’s still a very, very active and very aggressive fire and very much out of control,” said Kevin Bailey, mayor of the City of Swan, a region within the Perth metropolitan area where the blaze had done the most damage.
The fire, reminiscent of the infernos that devoured Australia’s southeast coast more than a year ago, is another reminder that as climate change spurs more frequent and intense natural disasters, Australia and other countries are likely to find themselves dealing with intersecting catastrophes.
Perth and the surrounding area were put on a strict lockdown on Sunday because of a single coronavirus case, the first one outside quarantine in the state of Western Australia in almost 10 months. The wildfire started around noon the next day, sparked by a house fire, according to Mr. Bailey, the mayor.
Ms. Martin said that while the dual disasters were overwhelming, “if anything, last year taught us to be grateful for what we do have, and to be resilient.”
After a bumpy start in the coronavirus response, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, secured a major win in June, placing the bureaucracy she leads at the heart of the European Union’s pandemic response. She was entrusted with cutting deals with pharmaceutical companies to provide vaccines for the 450 million people in the bloc.
When the rollout finally started just after Christmas, a sense of relief took hold in Brussels: The work of the commission, the European Union’s executive branch, was largely done; now individual member states were in charge of putting vaccines in the arms of citizens.
But barely a month into the rollout, which was shaping up to be significantly behind Britain and the United States, Pfizer and then AstraZeneca informed the commission that they would not deliver doses as promised, mainly because of production problems.
While the issue with Pfizer appeared limited and manageable, the situation with AstraZeneca escalated into an all-out vaccine war between the European Union and Britain. The company had been smoothly delivering vaccines to Britain, just as it informed the bloc that it would slash 75 percent off its promised first-quarter delivery volumes.
By the middle of last week, Ms. von der Leyen, who had not made any public statements on the matter, had left her health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides of Cyprus, to face the news media.
Later in the week, the commission rolled out a half-baked policy requiring prior authorization for exports of vaccines made in the European Union, so that it could check that companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca were not sending overseas any vaccines that had been promised to the bloc.
Critics accused the European Union, which spent years criticizing the Trump administration for erecting trade barriers, of doing the same. And Brexit supporters accused the bloc of trying to take vaccines away from Britons.
The idea came from Ms. von der Leyen and her inner circle, several senior E.U. officials said.
On Friday night, as the legal text of the policy was published, reporters noticed it made provisions for the European Union to activate a nuclear clause in the divorce terms with Britain, known as Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which practically reinstitutes a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The idea was that activating that clause would close a loophole that could allow Britain to spirit vaccines away from the E.U. by using the lack of border between the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. country, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The fallout was fast and furious. By 1 a.m. Saturday, after several tense calls, including with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, Ms. von der Leyen reversed the Article 16 invocation.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 6,000 employees of the Transportation Security Administration have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 14 of them have died, according to data recorded by the federal agency. Some agents describe the situation as a hidden epidemic fueled by lax safety measures on the part of the T.S.A.
At a time when Americans are being urged to limit their contact with others and maintain at least six feet of distance, T.S.A. agents must screen hundreds, if not thousands of people a day, often in proximity to travelers and their colleagues, and they are required to clean terminal surfaces regularly between shifts.
Agents are ordered to wear masks, gloves and face shields, but until this month, when the Biden administration mandated that travelers wear masks at airports, on planes and on all federal property, face coverings had not been mandatory for all air travelers in the United States. Instead, local airport authorities set their own rules, which varied widely.
In the early days of the pandemic, many screening agents said that they were not provided with personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., including masks and face shields, and were required to work in overcrowded checkpoints where it was not possible to practice social distancing. Even when P.P.E. became available, agents did not have to wear the equipment if their airport did not require it.
Not surprisingly, the nation’s busiest airports, with their millions of travelers, have seen the most cases: 423 at Los Angeles International; 213 at Dallas-Fort Worth; 239 at Chicago O’Hare. But few airports have been spared entirely. The airport in Nome, Alaska, which services only about 65,000 travelers annually, had a T.S.A. employee fall ill. Muskegon County Airport, in Michigan, had two.
The T.S.A. leadership says it has taken “extraordinary measures” to enhance the health and safety of its work force and passengers, including a requirement for agents to wear gloves, masks and eye protection if they are not behind an acrylic barrier. Unlike airline employees, T.S.A. agents are not tested regularly for the virus.
With a federal mask mandate at airports and other transportation effects in effect as of Tuesday, the T.S.A. says that all passengers who appear to be over the age of 2 will be required to wear a mask “throughout the security screening process.”
U.S. regulators could decide within a few weeks whether to allow Moderna, the developer of one of the two federally authorized Covid-19 vaccines, to increase the number of doses in its vials — which could accelerate the nation’s vaccination rate.
Moderna is hoping to raise the number of doses in its vials to as many as 15 from the current 10 doses. The proposal reflects the fact that the company has been ramping up production of its vaccine to the point where the final manufacturing stage, when it is bottled, capped and labeled, has emerged as a roadblock to expanding its distribution.
If the change does go through, it could be hugely welcome news in the campaign to curb a pandemic that has killed more than 440,000 people in the United States alone. In a statement late Monday, Ray Jordan, a Moderna spokesman, said the constraint on dosage per vial was limiting Moderna’s output.
The Moderna proposal is part of a broader push by the Biden administration to speed vaccine distribution, including by clearing away obstacles in the “fill and finish” phase of manufacturing. Although that nuts-and-bolts stage receives less attention than vaccine development, it has been identified for years as a constraint on vaccine production.
Moderna has discussed the possible change with the Food and Drug Administration but has not yet submitted manufacturing data to support it, people familiar with the discussions said. Federal regulators may be receptive to the idea of more doses in each vial, but could balk at the notion of a 50 percent increase.
The industry standard has long been 10 doses per vial, and federal regulators may be concerned that the extra punctures by needles of the rubber covering of the vial and the time required to extract more doses could increase the risk of contaminating the vaccine with bacteria.
At some point, too much liquid can cause a vial to break. Moderna has tested what happens when it adds additional doses, and determined that the limit is 15 doses, according to people familiar with the company’s operations who were not authorized to speak publicly. Moderna’s proposal to the F.D.A. for the dose increase was first reported by CNBC.
Packing more vaccine into each Moderna vial is one of a number of options White House and health officials are exploring as they push to expand production before the spring, when officials are expecting a renewed surge of infections from emerging variants of the virus. Some proposals have already been considered and dismissed, including a suggestion to combine fractions of doses left over in vials.
The maker of the other federally approved vaccine, Pfizer, is unable to increase the amount of vaccine in its vials because its manufacturing is geared toward a particular size of vial that can hold only about six doses. But Moderna’s vial is big enough to hold more than the 10 doses now allowed.
Asked about Moderna’s proposal, a White House spokesman on Monday said that “all options are on the table.”
Prashant Yadav, who studies health care supply chains with the Center for Global Development in Washington, said Moderna might be able to “relatively quickly” make more of its vaccine if it received the green light to add doses to each vial.
But he said it would not be an instant change. “I don’t think Moderna has a surplus sitting around,” he said.
Mr. Yadav said the finish-and-fill process is intensely automated, devoted to warding off contamination and precise to the microgram. At top speed, as many as 1,000 vials of vaccine can be filled per minute, he said.
He said a 15-dose vial carries a trade-off: It could lead to more wasted doses if the health care professional runs out of people to get inoculated and has to throw out the rest of the doses. But in the midst of a raging pandemic, experts said, that may well be a risk that federal health officials would be willing to take.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — When the authorities in Taiwan believed a man had breached mandatory quarantine rules, they acted swiftly to issue a fine of $3,500.
But in a pandemic-era twist on a classic case of mistaken identity, it turned out that the man, surnamed Chen, did not violate the rules at all.
He had in fact been kidnapped by debt collectors.
Mr. Chen had returned from Hong Kong in late October and was undergoing the required two-week quarantine at a friend’s home in the central city of Nantou when a group of debt collectors showed up one night, the Justice Ministry in Taiwan said last week. The men mistook Mr. Chen for his friend, who owed them money, then assaulted and abducted him.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry said that the kidnappers brought Mr. Chen back to his friend’s home after holding him for several hours. His father reported the abduction to the police, and Mr. Chen was arrested and fined about $3,500 for violating the quarantine regulations.
Later, local officials investigating the situation found that Mr. Chen had been forced to leave his quarantine premises against his will and agreed to rescind the fine.
They said it was the first time that a virus-related penalty had been revoked.
Taiwan has imposed fines of up to tens of thousands of dollars on people who were found to have breached their mandatory quarantines, including around $33,000 for one man who went out one night last year to go clubbing.
The debt collectors have not yet been caught, according to the Justice Ministry spokesperson.
In other global developments:
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan said on Tuesday that the state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other prefectures would be extended by one month, to March 7. Mr. Suga said that while new infections had declined from their peak last month, the health care system was still strained.
Like everything else in the year since the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla., has been adapted to Covid-19 health guidelines and scaled down. While the football being played on Sunday will look largely the same as in other years, nearly everything else surrounding the Super Bowl will be different:
Players are being tested even more. Players, coaches and members of each team’s staff have been tested for Covid-19 daily throughout the season. Since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs qualified for the Super Bowl on Jan. 24, team personnel have been tested for coronavirus twice daily, and the teams have not had a positive test in more than three weeks. However, two Chiefs players — receiver Demarcus Robinson and center Daniel Kilgore — came in close contact with an infected person and must isolate for at least five days, Coach Andy Reid confirmed on Monday.
Fewer fans will attend the game. This year, the N.F.L. will host fewer than 25,000 fans, a record low for a Super Bowl and less than half the capacity of Raymond James Stadium, where the game will be played. The league has given 7,500 tickets to vaccinated health care workers. Another 14,500 seats will be sold to fans who won’t be required to be inoculated or tested before entering the stadium, and another 2,700 fans will sit in luxury boxes. Every fan attending the game will receive a kit that includes personal protective equipment, including a KN95 mask and hand sanitizer.
TV commercials will be toned down. Television commercials during the Super Bowl can often attract more attention than the game itself. This year, some of the broadcast’s biggest sponsors, like Coca-Cola and Hyundai, have decided not to spend millions of dollars for 30-second spots. Younger companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Vroom will still be vying for attention, though.
The pandemic has caused businesses all over New York and New Jersey to close up shop, and by one estimate permanently closed nearly 100,000 businesses nationally. But in the New York City suburbs, some small-business owners say they are finding a way forward, through customers who are suddenly spending a lot more time — and money — in the communities where they live.
At Wilson & Son Jewelers in Westchester County, N.Y., just north of New York City, the owners, Matthew and Michael Wilson, said people who lived nearby had recently become customers at their shop.
“They’re working from home now,” Matthew Wilson said. “They’re ‘discovering’ us after 115 years of operation.”
Roughly 40 percent of Westchester residents work outside the county, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau; more than half of those work in Manhattan. But 2020 was not 2017: Some 90 percent of Manhattan’s office employees have not returned to work, a survey by the Partnership for New York City found in October.
In Westchester, home to nearly a million people, tens of thousands are no longer commuting into the city every day. For suburban businesses, that has meant new customers.
Repeat business is particularly important for small businesses in the suburbs, and some are finding that customers who came in for the first time during the pandemic are coming back. At the same time, many longtime customers are being extra supportive during this difficult time.
Still, not all businesses are doing well. Though it’s not yet clear how many businesses in Westchester have closed during the pandemic, many have reported steep losses in revenue, according to data provided by the county’s economic development officials.
The businesses in the New York City suburbs that are staying afloat, however, attribute their survival to successful pandemic-era pivots, loyal customer bases and changes in consumer appetite for certain goods and services.
Kristen Bayrakdarian and
To hip-hop fans, it is an instantly recognizable symbol, a flying letter W that represents the Wu-Tang Clan, the New York rap collective.
To the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it suggests something else: a bat. And so, when Canadian diplomats in China ordered T-shirts with the symbol behind the word “Wuhan,” it became a minor diplomatic incident.
“The Chinese side is shocked by this and has lodged stern representations with the Canadian Embassy in China, demanding that the Canadian side immediately thoroughly investigate the incident and give China a clear explanation,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a news conference on Monday.
Bats are considered one of the possible original hosts of the coronavirus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, and they have appeared in memes about Chinese eating habits that have been criticized as racist. The Chinese authorities have tried to play down the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, instead pushing dubious theories that the virus may have emerged earlier in Europe, the United States or elsewhere.
A spokesperson for Canada’s foreign service told the Reuters news agency that the T-shirt did not depict a bat.
“The T-shirt logo designed by a member of the embassy shows a stylized W, and is not intended to represent a bat. It was created for the team of embassy staff working on repatriation of Canadians from Wuhan in early 2020,” the spokesperson said by email on Tuesday. “We regret the misunderstanding.”
Relations between China and Canada have been tense since December 2018, when Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at the Chinese tech giant Huawei who was wanted on fraud charges in the United States. Two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested in China soon after in an apparent act of retaliation. They have been accused of espionage and remain held in China under isolated and harsh conditions.
NEW DELHI — Mayandi Soundara Raj, an engineer pictured astride a motorcycle, was “a perfect husband” to his wife until he died on July 10.
Arkadipta Basu, who died on Sept. 17, showered her family with “love and affection,” according to Anindya Basu, her husband.
“I couldn’t keep my promise to be with you forever,” he writes under a photograph of her in a bright red sari.
Mr. Raj and Ms. Basu are among those memorialized on a new website dedicated to India’s coronavirus victims, who number more than 154,000.
At the height of India’s outbreak last fall, more than 1,000 people were dying every day. As in many other places, pandemic restrictions often meant that friends and family members were unable to attend funerals or be present for last rites.
“As a society, we probably couldn’t provide them the dignity in which we would have loved to bid them a farewell,” said Abhijit Chowdhury of the Covid Care Network, a nonprofit group in the eastern city of Kolkata that established the site.
The group says it hopes that the memorials will broadly represent India’s population, and invites submissions online that are verified with death certificates. “We are initiating this, but we hope this becomes a place where everybody in the country could join,” Mr. Chowdhury said.
India appears to be experiencing something of a breather in its outbreak. The country has registered more than 10 million total cases, the second-highest tally in the world, after that of the United States, according to a New York Times database. Compared with almost 100,000 cases a day last fall, India now has a seven-day average of about 12,000 new daily infections. The country of 1.3 billion people has also begun one of the world’s largest inoculation campaigns, with about 3.9 million health care workers having received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by Tuesday afternoon.
Researchers say the true toll of the pandemic in India is still unclear because many deaths go unreported.
“We still have to be careful,” said K. Srinath Reddy, a public health expert and president of the New Delhi-based Public Health Foundation of India.
“New mutants have come in, and we have to make sure the gains are not lost.”