The Biden administration on Saturday put Johnson & Johnson in charge of a Baltimore contract plant that ruined 15 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine, and moved to stop the facility from making another vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, senior federal health officials said.
The extraordinary move by the Department of Health and Human Services will leave the Emergent BioSolutions facility solely devoted to making the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine and is meant to avoid future mix-ups, according to two senior federal health officials. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the changes, saying it was “assuming full responsibility” for the vaccine made by Emergent.
The change came in response to the recent disclosure that Emergent, a manufacturing partner to both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, accidentally mixed up the ingredients from the two different vaccines, which forced regulators to delay authorization of the plant’s production lines.
Federal officials are worried that the mix-up will erode public confidence in the vaccines, just as President Biden is making an aggressive push to have enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult by the end of May. At the same time, there is deep concern about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, amid a health scare that has prompted some European countries to restrict its use.
AstraZeneca said in a statement that it would work with the Biden administration to find an alternative site.
The ingredient mix-up, and Saturday’s move by the administration, is a significant setback and public relations debacle for Emergent, a Maryland biotech company that has built a profitable business by teaming up with the federal government, primarily by selling its anthrax vaccines to the Strategic National Stockpile.
A spokesman for Emergent declined to comment, except to say that the company would continue making AstraZeneca doses until it received a contract modification from the federal government.
Experts in vaccine manufacturing said that in the past, the Food and Drug Administration had a rule to prevent such mishaps by not allowing a facility to make two live viral vector vaccines, because of the potential for mix-ups and contamination.
Unlike Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca does not yet have emergency F.D.A. authorization for its vaccine. With three federally authorized vaccines (the other two are by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna), it is unclear whether the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has had a troubled history with regulators, could even be cleared in time to meet U.S. needs.
However, one of the federal officials said the Health and Human Services Department was discussing working with AstraZeneca to adapt its vaccine to combat new coronavirus variants.
None of the Johnson & Johnson doses made by Emergent have been released by the F.D.A. for distribution. The agency’s acting commissioner, Dr. Janet Woodcock, said in a statement that the agency “takes its responsibility for helping to ensure the quality of manufacturing of vaccines and other medical products for use during this pandemic very seriously.”
But she made clear that the ultimate responsibility rested with Johnson & Johnson. “It is important to note that even when companies use contract manufacturing organizations, it is ultimately the responsibility of the company that holds the emergency use authorization to ensure that the quality standards of the F.D.A. are met.”
Emergent’s Baltimore facility is one of two facilities that were built with taxpayer support and are federally designated as “Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing.” Last June, the government paid Emergent $628 million to reserve space there as part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s fast-track initiative to develop coronavirus vaccines.
Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca both contracted with Emergent to use the space. Both companies’ vaccines are so-called live viral-vector vaccines, meaning they use a modified, harmless version of a different virus as a vector, or carrier, to deliver instructions to the body’s immune system. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is one dose; AstraZeneca’s vaccine is two doses.
Last month, Mr. Biden canceled a visit to the Emergent Baltimore plant, and his spokeswoman announced that the administration would conduct an audit of the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency medical reserve. Both actions came after a New York Times investigation into how the company gained outsize influence over the repository.
For the first time, more than three million people, on average, are receiving a Covid-19 vaccine each day in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And on Saturday, the country reported over four million doses in a single day for the first time.
The milestones reflect a steady increase in the capacity of states to deliver shots into arms. In early March, the nation surpassed an average of two million doses administered each day, up from around 800,000 doses a day in mid-January. Nearly a third of the United States population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as more states expand eligibility and production ramps up.
The news, which comes as President Biden enters the homestretch of his first 100 days in office and amid the general declines in new virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations since January, offers a sign of hope for a weary nation. But the average number of new reported cases has risen 19 percent over the past two weeks, and federal health officials say that complacency about the coronavirus could bring on another severe wave of infections.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an emotional plea to Americans this week. “But right now I’m scared.”
The rising vaccination rate has prompted some state officials to accelerate their rollout schedules. This week, Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut expanded access to people 16 and older, several days ahead of schedule. And Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado opened universal eligibility about two weeks earlier than planned.
“No more having to sort out if you’re in or if you’re out,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, the deputy secretary of the Department of Health Services in Wisconsin, where anyone 16 or older will be eligible for a vaccine as of Monday. “It’s time to just move forward and get everybody with a shot in their arm.”
In another promising development, federal health officials said on Friday that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can travel “at low risk to themselves” within the United States and abroad.
But these days, most signs of hope are offset by peril.
Over the past week, there has been an average of 64,730 cases per day, an increase of 19 percent from two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database. New deaths on average have declined, but they are still hovering around 900 a day. More than 960 were reported on Friday alone.
The C.D.C. predicted this week that the number of new Covid-19 cases per week in the United States would “remain stable or have an uncertain trend” over the next four weeks, and that weekly case numbers could be as high as about 700,000 even in late April.
Cases are already increasing significantly in many states, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, as variants of the virus spread and some governors relax mask mandates and other restrictions. Dr. Walensky said this week that if states and cities continued to loosen public health restrictions, the nation could face a potential fourth wave.
Michigan, one of the worst-hit states, is reporting nearly 6,000 cases a day — up from about 1,000 a day in late February — even though half of its residents over 65 are now fully vaccinated.
And in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said that new variants were aggravating the state’s caseload, even as vaccinations picked up.
“We have to understand that we are in a battle,” he said.
As if to underscore how fragile the nation’s recovery is, a quintessential American ritual — the start of the baseball season — has already faced a virus-related delay.
Major League Baseball officials said on Friday that the league had found only five positive cases in more than 14,000 tests of league personnel. But because four of those people were Washington Nationals players, the team’s Opening Day game against the New York Mets was postponed, and then the team’s full three-game weekend series.
“It’s one of those things that brings it to light that we’re not through it yet,” Brian Snitker, the Atlanta Braves manager, told The Associated Press. “We’re still fighting this.”
Benjamin Guggenheim, Lauryn Higgins and
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine offered school districts early access to Covid-19 vaccines for their staff members if they committed to opening classrooms by March 1.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency related to child and adolescent mental health and banned fully virtual instruction starting in April.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that most elementary schools would be required to offer full-time in-person instruction by April 5, and most middle schools by April 28.
The three are part of a significant and bipartisan group of governors who have decided it is time to flex some muscle and get students back into classrooms, despite union resistance and bureaucratic hesitancy.
The push has come from both ends of the political spectrum. Democratic governors in Oregon, California, New Mexico and North Carolina, and Republicans in Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire and West Virginia, among other states, have all taken steps to prod, and sometimes force, districts to open.
The result has been a major increase in the number of students who now have the option of attending school in person, or will in the next month.
According to a school reopening tracker created by the American Enterprise Institute, 7 percent of the more than 8,000 districts being tracked were operating fully remotely on March 22, the lowest percentage since the tracker was started in November. Forty-one percent of districts were offering full-time in-person instruction, the highest percentage in that time. Those findings have been echoed by other surveys.
In interviews, several governors described the factors motivating their decision to push districts to reopen, including the substantial evidence that there is little virus transmission in schools if mitigation measures are followed, the decline in overall cases from their January peak, and, most of all, the urgency of getting students back in classrooms before the school year ends.
“Every day is an eternity for a young person,” Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said. “We just could not wait any further.”
In the weeks since most of the governors acted, nationwide cases have started to rise again, which could complicate the effort to get children back in school. Many school staff members have already been offered vaccines, which has reduced the resistance from teachers’ unions to reopening and, provided staff vaccination rates are high, will limit opportunities for the virus to spread in schools.
But for the time being, at least, the moves by these governors have yielded significant results.
In Ohio, nearly half of all students were in districts that were fully remote at the beginning of 2021. By March 1, that number was down to 4 percent, and it has shrunk further in the weeks since.
In Washington, before Mr. Inslee issued his proclamation, the state’s largest district, Seattle Public Schools, was locked in a standoff with its teachers’ union over a reopening plan. Days after Mr. Inslee announced he would require districts to bring students back at least part time, the two sides reached an agreement for all preschool and elementary school students and some older students with disabilities to return by April 5.
And in Massachusetts, the move by Mr. Baker, a Republican, has spurred a sea change, with dozens of districts bringing students back to school for the first time since the pandemic began, and hundreds shifting from part-time to full-time schedules.
“It’s worked exceedingly well,” Mr. DeWine, also a Republican, said of his decision to offer vaccines to Ohio districts that pledged to reopen. “We’ve got these kids back in school.”
JERUSALEM — In the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday morning, in the alleys of the Christian quarter, it was as if the pandemic had never happened.
The winding passageways that form the Via Dolorosa, along which Christians believe Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion, were packed with over 1,000 worshipers. The Good Friday procession, where the faithful retrace the route Jesus is said to have taken, was back.
“It is like a miracle,” said the Rev. Amjad Sabbara, a Roman Catholic priest who helped lead the procession. “We’re not doing this online. We’re seeing the people in front of us.”
Pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony and required priests to hold services without congregants present. Now, thanks to Israel’s world-leading vaccine rollout, religious life in Jerusalem is edging back to normal. And on Friday, that brought crowds back to the city’s streets, and relief to even one of Christianity’s most solemn commemorations: the Good Friday procession.
For much of the past year, the pandemic kept the Old City eerily empty. But with nearly 60 percent of Israeli residents fully vaccinated, the city’s streets were once again thrumming, even if international tourists were still absent.
At the gathering point for the procession on Friday, there was scarcely space to stand. The crowd moved slowly off, singing mournful hymns as they proceeded along what Christians consider a re-enactment of Jesus’ last steps.
In the alley outside the chapel of St. Simon of Cyrene, the marchers trailed their fingers over an ocher limestone in the chapel wall. According to tradition, Jesus steadied himself against the stone after a stumble.
Finally, they reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which believers think was the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and, ultimately, resurrection.
For some, the Good Friday procession carried even more resonance than usual — its themes of suffering, redemption and renewal seeming particularly symbolic as the end of a deadly pandemic appeared finally in sight.
“We have gained hope again,” said George Halis, 24, who is studying to be a priest and who lives in the Old City. “Last year was like a darkness that came over all of earth.”
But for now, that togetherness continues to face limits. There are still restrictions on the number of worshipers at Easter services. Masks are still a legal requirement. And foreigners still need an exemption to enter Israel — keeping out thousands of pilgrims, at the expense of local shopkeepers who depend on their business.
A beloved superfan of the University of Alabama’s men’s basketball team died from complications of Covid-19, his mother said Saturday.
Luke Ratliff rarely missed a game and was known by the Crimson Tide community as “Fluffopotamus.” He died Friday evening, his mother, Pamela Ratliff, said. A senior at the University of Alabama, Mr. Ratliff was set to graduate in August. He was 23.
“He had a personality that was bigger than this world, never met a stranger,” Ms. Ratliff said on Saturday.
Mr. Ratliff traveled to the men’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament in Indianapolis to cheer on the Crimson Tide until they lost to U.C.L.A. last weekend. He had recently gone through rapid coronavirus testing multiple times, Ms. Ratliff said, and the tests had come back negative.
“He didn’t have any of the typical symptoms until the cough set in this week,” she said.
Mr. Ratliff was eventually treated for bronchitis and it was later discovered he had contracted Covid-19.
Fans were allowed to fill venues for the tournament up to 25 percent of their normal capacity. In response to Mr. Ratliff’s death, the Marion County Public Health Department said in a statement that it would be investigating to determine “if anyone in Indianapolis may have been exposed to Covid-19 by any Alabama resident who visited Indianapolis in recent days.”
“We continue to encourage residents and visitors to practice the simple and important habits that keep us all safe: wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing,” the department said.
There has been an outpouring of tributes from the Crimson Tide community celebrating Mr. Ratliff.
“We will forever remember our #1 fan,” Alabama Men’s Basketball said on Twitter. “We love you.”
Nate Oats, Alabama’s coach, said Mr. Ratliff’s death “doesn’t seem real.”
“Fluff has been our biggest supporter since day one,” Oats said on Twitter. “Put all he had into our program. Loved sharing this ride with him. You’ll be missed dearly my man! Wish we had one more victory cigar and hug together. Roll Tide Forever.”
Mr. Ratliff described his love for college basketball to The Tuscaloosa News earlier this year.
“College basketball is different because it’s literally right in front of you: You can see it, you can touch it, you can go to it 16 home games a year. It’s tangible, that’s what’s endeared me to it,” Mr. Ratliff told the outlet, discussing his preference for the game over football.
On March 31, Mr. Ratliff chronicled the Alabama men’s basketball season on Twitter, posting his own personal highlights from the season.
“I will finish college having attended 44 of the tide’s past 45 conference and postseason games, including 42 in a row,” Mr. Ratliff wrote. “What a freaking ride it’s been.”
Mr. Ratliff is survived by his parents and two brothers.
Three hundred and eighty-seven days after Broadway went dark, a faint light started to glimmer on Saturday.
There were just two performers — the tap dancer Savion Glover and the actor Nathan Lane, both of them Tony Award winners — on a bare Broadway stage. But together they conjured up decades of theater lore.
The 36-minute event, before a masked audience of 150 scattered across an auditorium with 1,700 seats, was the first such experiment since the coronavirus pandemic forced all 41 Broadway houses to close on March 12, 2020.
Glover performed an improvisational song-and-dance number in which he seemed to summon specters of productions past — “A Chorus Line,” “The Tap Dance Kid,” “Dreamgirls,” “42nd Street.” He also made a pointed reference to Black life in the U.S., interpolating the phrase “knee-on-your-neck America” into a song from “West Side Story.”
Lane, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, performed a comedic monologue by Paul Rudnick, in which he portrayed a die-hard theater fan who dreams (or was it real?) that a parade of Broadway stars, led by Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald, arrive at his rent-controlled apartment and proceed to vie for his attention while dishily one-upping one other.
The St. James, a city historic landmark built in 1927, was chosen in part because it’s big — and empty. The theater also has a modern HVAC system, and its air filters were upgraded during the pandemic in an effort to reduce the spread of airborne viruses.
Californians will soon be able to gather indoors, the state’s public health department announced, edging toward a return to live entertainment as vaccination rates rise and the state recovers from a winter surge in coronavirus cases.
Friday’s announcement is one of the latest examples of states easing Covid-19 restrictions as they loosen vaccine eligibility and more shots land in arms. Under the guidelines, “gatherings, private events or meetings such as receptions or conferences, and indoor seated live events and performances” will be permitted in some counties based on their Covid-19 risk levels, starting April 15.
As of March 30, most of the state’s counties are under the state’s red tier or under substantial Covid-19 risk, according to state data. Under the red tier, venues with over 1,500 capacity are limited to 20 percent capacity and proof of testing or full vaccination is required, outdoor gatherings of 25 people are allowed and private indoor events are allowed for up to 100 guests with proof of testing or full vaccination.
Residents can read specific guidelines under each tier in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”
Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said in a statement that the lift in restrictions showed the progress the state had made against the virus.
Coronavirus cases in the state have decreased about 12 percent in the past week to an average of 2,654 cases per day, according to a New York Times database. Almost 20 percent of California’s population is fully vaccinated.
Despite the positive trajectory, state officials are still warning that safety measures must be at the forefront of people’s minds even if some restrictions have loosened.
“By following public health guidelines such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated when eligible, we can resume additional activities as we take steps to reduce risk,” Dr. Ghaly said.
BUENOS AIRES — President Alberto Fernández of Argentina tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday and was experiencing mild symptoms despite having been vaccinated earlier this year, becoming the latest in a series of world leaders who have contracted the virus.
Mr. Fernández said on Twitter that a “light headache” and a temperature of 99.1 degrees had prompted him to take a rapid antigen test. Its positive finding was confirmed later Saturday by a more rigorous P.C.R. test, said Dr. Federico Saavedra, the president’s physician.
Mr. Fernández’s symptoms were mild “due in large part to the protective effect of the vaccine,” Dr. Saavedra said.
The president, who first learned the preliminary result on Friday, his 62nd birthday, said he would remain in isolation. “I am physically well, and although I would have liked to end my birthday without this news, I’m also in good spirits,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Fernández joins a list of world leaders who have contracted the virus, including Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Emmanuel Macron of France and Donald Trump of the United States.
But Mr. Fernández appears to be the first of those leaders to test positive for the virus after having been fully vaccinated. He received the first dose of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine on Jan. 21 and the second on Feb. 11.
Word of Mr. Fernández’s test results comes shortly after Argentina tightened its borders amid a surge in infections. Several neighboring countries, particularly Brazil, are experiencing a sharp increase in cases as new, more contagious variants of the virus engulf the region. Argentina recently canceled all direct flights with Brazil, Chile and Mexico in an effort to block the variants.
Argentina was the first country in Latin America to approve the use of the Sputnik V vaccine, in late December, but mass inoculations are taking longer than the government had initially predicted amid a global shortage of the vaccine. The country has also been administering China’s Sinopharm vaccine and Covishield, the Indian version of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
NEW DELHI — As a new wave of coronavirus infections grips the densely populated region of South Asia, home to a quarter of the world’s population, Bangladesh on Saturday announced a second lockdown and officials in Mumbai, India’s largest city, said they were on the verge of declaring one.
The authorities in Bangladesh said the nation of 165 million people would go into a weeklong lockdown beginning on Monday to curb the spread of the virus. The country shut down for two months starting in March last year.
Bangladesh on Friday registered nearly 7,000 cases in 24 hours, the highest since the spread of the virus in the country last year. The daily death toll has been around 50 for the past week, but what has particularly alarmed officials is the high test positivity rate, with 24 percent of virus tests conducted coming back positive.
Farhad Hossain, Bangladesh’s state minister for public administration, told the local news media that “industries and factories will remain open,” but would operate in shifts and follow strict health protocols. The exceptions appeared to be aimed at reducing the economic impact and avoiding the kind of exodus of laborers that led to a humanitarian crisis in India last year.
Infections have also been rising sharply in Pakistan, which has struggled to source vaccines for its population, and in India, where a vaccination drive is only now picking up pace — despite the country being home to one of the world’s largest suppliers of vaccines.
Just a few weeks ago, India was a major exporter of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it was using that to exert influence in South Asia and around the world. But as infections soared, the country decided to cut back on exports and is now holding back nearly all of the 2.4 million doses that the Serum Institute of India, the private company that is one of the world’s largest producers of the AstraZeneca vaccine, makes each day.
India on Sunday reported more than 93,000 new cases, its biggest one-day increase since September. Single-day figures sometimes contain anomalies, but the country’s seven-day average of new cases, a more reliable gauge, has been rising sharply since early March.
Nearly half of deaths and new infections in recent weeks have been traced to the state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, the country’s financial hub.
Uddhav Thackeray, the state’s chief minister, warned in a televised address on Friday that a lockdown was imminent if people continued with their relaxed attitude. Even when people are vaccinated, he noted, protection from infection is not absolute.
“The vaccine is like an umbrella in the rain,” Mr. Thackeray said. “But what we are facing right now is a storm.”
As cases rise, law enforcement officials across India are adopting stringent measures, including fining violators who don’t wear masks. India has also expanded its vaccination drive, now administering over three million jabs a day.
But the government’s messaging is at times contradictory, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many senior officials continue to hold large rallies in several states where local elections are underway.
The government has also allowed a huge monthlong Hindu festival to go ahead on the banks of the Ganges River. One million to five million people are expected to participate in the festivities in the city of Haridwar each day, officials say.
In other virus news from around the world:
On Saturday, Catalonia became the latest region of Spain whose authorities defied a government decree that a face mask must be worn in all public spaces, including beaches, independent of whether social distancing can be maintained. Miquel Sàmper, the region’s interior minister, told a Catalan radio station that the regional government believed that it was “pure logic” that “when you are sunbathing, you need not wear a mask,” although the mask should be worn on the beach if a person moved about and got into close contact with others. Regional politicians from the Canary and Balearic Islands, two Spanish archipelagoes that are major tourism hubs, have also criticized the decree, which the central government made without consulting them first.
Italy entered a three-day nationwide coronavirus lockdown on Saturday to deter Easter travel and get-togethers even as the country’s variant-fueled spike in new infections began to wane, The Associated Press reported. Travel between regions and visits to relatives were being limited through Monday. Nonessential shops were closed and restaurants and bars were open only for takeout.
San Marino, a microstate surrounded by Italy, feared being left behind in Europe’s inoculation campaign. Now it has jumped ahead, with the Sputnik vaccine sent by an unlikely, faraway friend.
Turkey has begun administering Pfizer-BioNTech shots, the second Covid-19 vaccine authorized in the country after China’s Sinovac. With coronavirus infections surging and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaching, the government is also reimposing strict social distancing measures, including a prohibition on large gatherings for the traditional meals before sunrise and after sunset.
The Rev. Henry Torres told his parishioners, who had gathered on Palm Sunday in socially distanced rows of half-empty pews, that God had not abandoned them.
The coronavirus had killed dozens of regulars at the church, St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y., and the pandemic forced it to close its doors for months last year. But the parishioners were there now, he said, which was a sign of hope.
“Even through difficulties, God is at work,” Father Torres said. “Even when people are suffering, even if it may seem that God is silent, that does not mean that God is absent.”
That is a message that many Christians — and the cash-strapped churches that minister to them — are eager to believe this Easter, as the springtime celebration of hope and renewal on Sunday coincides with rising vaccination rates and the promise of a return to something resembling normal life.
Religious services during the Holy Week holidays, which began on Palm Sunday and end on Easter, are among the most well-attended of the year, and this year they offer churches a chance to begin rebuilding their flocks and regaining their financial health. But the question of whether people will return is a crucial one.
Across New York City, many churches have still not reopened despite state rules that would allow them to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a nationally prominent Black church, said concerns over the virus, and its disproportionate impact on the Black community, would keep his church from reopening until at least the fall.
Nicholas Richardson, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said many of its churches had also not reopened. When the diocese introduced a program last fall to allow its 190 parishes to pay a reduced tithe to the diocese, roughly half of them applied.
“It varies church by church,” he said. “Pledges are not necessarily dramatically down, but donations given to the collection plate are hopelessly down.”
For weeks, the mood in much of the United States has been buoyant. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have fallen steeply from their highs, and millions of people are being newly vaccinated every day. Restaurants, shops and schools have reopened. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have abandoned precautions altogether.
But it is increasingly clear that the next few months will be painful. Concerning variants of the virus are spreading, carrying mutations that make the virus both more contagious and in some cases more deadly.
Even as vaccines were authorized late last year, variants were trouncing Britain, South Africa and Brazil. New variants have continued to pop up — in California one week, in New York and Oregon the next. And as they take root, they threaten to postpone an end to the pandemic.
At the moment, most vaccines appear to be effective against the variants. But public health officials are deeply worried that future iterations of the virus may be more resistant, requiring Americans to line up for regular rounds of booster shots or even new vaccines.
“We don’t have evolution on our side,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This pathogen seems to always be changing in a way that makes it harder for us to suppress.”
Health officials see an urgent need to expand vaccinations, which reduce transmission and therefore the virus’s opportunities to mutate. They also acknowledge the importance of tracking the variants. Already, B.1.1.7, the highly contagious variant that walloped Britain and is wreaking havoc in continental Europe, is rising exponentially in the United States.
The variant is about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus, according to the most recent estimates. Infected people seem to carry more of the B.1.1.7 virus and for longer, said Katrina Lythgoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. “You’re more infectious for more days,” she said.
Limited genetic testing has turned up more than 12,500 U.S. cases, many in Florida and Michigan. As of March 13, the variant accounted for about 27 percent of new cases nationwide, up from just 1 percent in early February.
“The best way to think about B.1.1.7 and other variants is to treat them as separate epidemics,” said Sebastian Funk, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’re really kind of obscuring the view by adding them all up to give an overall number of cases.”
Other variants identified in South Africa and Brazil, as well as some virus versions first seen in the United States, have been slower to spread. But they, too, are worrisome, because they contain a mutation that diminishes the vaccines’ effectiveness. Just this week, an outbreak of P.1, the variant that crushed Brazil, forced a shutdown of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia.
Kenya has canceled the private importation and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, citing the need to safeguard against the possible introduction of fake doses and to ensure “greater transparency and accountability.”
Licenses given to private hospitals and clinics to administer the vaccines were canceled and any entity found to be advertising or vaccinating people for a fee will be prosecuted, the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus said on Friday evening.
“Participation of the private sector in the vaccination exercise threatens the gains made in the fight against Covid-19 and puts the country at international risk should counterfeit commodities find their way into the Kenyan market,” read a statement signed by the health minister, Mutahi Kagwe.
The suspension comes days after private health facilities started administering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, charging up to $70 for a shot. While the vaccine had received emergency use authorization in Kenya, there was confusion when some health officials said the jabs were not approved for commercial sale.
The authorities said those who received the first dose of vaccine through private plans would receive their second dose when due, but did not specify how.
Last month, Kenya received its first Covid-19 vaccines — over a million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot supplied through the global initiative known as Covax. So far, nearly 200,000 doses have been administered, with most going to health workers, security officers and teachers, along with people over 58.
But the first batch of Covax vaccines came a month late and the next shipment, which was expected this month, is already facing delays.
“There is an expectation that they will begin again in full in May, with catch-up accelerating thereafter,” a Covax spokesman said in a statement.
The suspension also comes as Kenya is facing a surge in cases, a rise in deaths and a lack of intensive care unit beds. To curb the spread of the virus, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a partial lockdown last week, including longer curfew hours, the closure of bars and schools, and limits on travel in Nairobi, the capital, and surrounding counties.
On Friday, the British Embassy in Kenya said that beginning April 9, travelers who have been in or passed through Kenya in the past 10 days will be denied entry into Britain. British, Irish and third-country nationals with residence rights will be required to quarantine in a government-approved facility for 10 days.
Parisians filled packed trains on Saturday as France entered a third lockdown, with the national rail authority saying it expected nearly 1 percent of the country’s population to travel over the weekend despite lockdown restrictions.
Intensive care units in France are now as full as they were in April last year at the peak of the first wave, and on Saturday the country of 67 million recorded over 46,000 new cases and 301 deaths.
Although new measures include a 7 p.m. curfew and a ban on traveling farther than 10 kilometers, about six miles, from home except for essential reasons, many bought train tickets after President Emmanuel Macron announced the new lockdown on Wednesday.
Mr. Macron had said that those living in urban areas could use the Easter weekend to travel to the countryside and spend the three-week lockdown there, and the authorities said they would also show “tolerance” over the weekend to let parents arrange for child care with grandparents.
Similar moves last year prompted anger from local residents and fears that city dwellers living in areas with high rates of infection would spread the virus to regions that had so far been spared.
Yet nothing like last year’s exodus was expected.
Some Parisians left the capital last month after restrictions were imposed in the city and its surroundings. The new restrictions, which also include bans on gatherings of more than six people and on outdoor drinking, now apply nationwide. Schools will also shut.
In La Baule, a popular seaside town of 17,000 on the Atlantic coast, the mayor told Le Monde that he expected more than 30,000 people to arrive for the third lockdown.
“To leave at any cost,” Le Parisien newspaper wrote on its Saturday front page.
When international travel came to a halt last year, Amsterdam — like cities everywhere — was drained of tourists almost overnight. The effect, according to Sonia Philipse, the owner of the restaurant Lavinia Good Food, was both surreal and serene: Without the crowds, her city was quieter and more beautiful than she had ever seen it.
“At this point we’re missing our tourists again,” Ms. Philipse said recently. “But I think there was a moment of really big joy in getting our city back.”
In 2019, a record-breaking 21.7 million people visited Amsterdam, a city with a population of about 870,000. After the pandemic wiped out tourism in 2020, and with visitor numbers still low, Amsterdam’s leaders are trying to introduce new restrictions in an effort to ensure that old problems stemming from tourism don’t reappear when visitors return.
Even before the pandemic, city leaders put in place measures to try to address residents’ complaints about disruptive tourists who disrespected prostitutes, drove up housing prices by occupying short-term vacation rentals and had taken over some of the city’s most beautiful, historic areas. Officials raised the tourist tax and banned several types of businesses, including guided tours of the Red Light District, new hotels in the city center and new shops that cater to tourists.
“Constantly increasing numbers of visitors, misconduct, a shrinking retail mix, rising property prices, commercialization of public space and criminal subversion all call for measures to be taken,” Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, wrote of the city center in a letter to the City Council in 2019.
Ms. Halsema proposed four scenarios for the future of sex work in the Red Light District. One of those scenarios — the relocation of sex workers to a “prostitution hotel” elsewhere in the city — recently attracted the support of a majority of City Council members and is awaiting full approval.
Another headline-grabbing proposal from the mayor’s office would make it illegal for visitors to buy cannabis in Amsterdam’s coffee shops, which are concentrated in the Red Light District, an ancient part of Amsterdam’s city center and a huge magnet for tourists. Amsterdam has also joined more than 20 other European cities to advocate stricter rules on vacation-rental platforms at the European Commission and in the European Parliament.
The proposals have provoked opposition from local business owners and those in the sex work industry, who argue that the government should increase enforcement of existing prohibitions against public urination, public drunkenness and disturbing the peace.
Syria is witnessing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. Last month, the state news media reported that intensive care units in state hospitals in the capital, Damascus, were full, and that medical staff had been told to prepare for a large influx of patients.
And the dire situation has affected schools. Hatoun Tawashi, a health ministry official, told a local radio station that cases rose dramatically last week in schools, and that many students and teachers did not show up.
As the war-torn country experiences a severe increase in coronavirus cases, the government announced on Saturday that primary schools around Syria would close down indefinitely next week. Universities will suspend classes for only two weeks and high schools will remain open.
The education minister, Darem Tabbaa, told Syria’s state news agency, SANA, that the closures would go into effect Monday, and that final exams for grades five up to high school would be held over four days starting April 25. The Ministry of Higher Education said private and public universities would suspend classes for two weeks starting Monday.
Syria has been mired in a 10-year civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead, and displaced millions of people, including over five million refugees outside the country. The country’s severely depleted health care sector has registered more than 19,000 coronavirus cases, including 1,288 deaths, since Syria’s first case was logged in March of last year. But the real numbers are believed to be much higher because testing is limited.
Last month, President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, tested positive for the virus. The president has recovered and returned to regular duties last week.
According to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 21,000 cases in the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s northwest along the border with Turkey, as well as some 9,000 cases in areas controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters in the northeast.
The W.H.O. said last month that it would oversee a Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Syria that is expected to start this month, with the aim of inoculating 20 percent of the population by the end of 2021.
Hussein Arnous, Syria’s prime minister, told reporters on Saturday that Syria would receive vaccines from China, Russia and the W.H.O. “within days.”