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Covid-19 Vaccine and Variants News: Live Updates

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‘Seriously Disappointing’: W.H.O. Criticizes Booster Vaccines

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O. director general, called on wealthy countries not to order Covid booster shots while most countries are still struggling to give their residents initial vaccines.

While many countries haven’t even started vaccinating, and another country has already vaccinated majority of its population, the two doses and now moving to a surplus, which is the booster. It’s really not only disappointing, it’s seriously disappointing. And high-income countries who are vaccinating their population significantly are starting to see Covid-19 pandemic as if it’s not their problem. That is dangerous. You have seen it and everybody is seeing it now. High-income countries are starting to say, we have managed to control it. It’s not our problem. And there will be two problems on this: One, I’m not sure if they are out of the woods, and I don’t think they’re in control. Instead of Moderna and Pfizer prioritizing the supply of vaccines as boosters to countries whose populations have relatively high coverage, we need them to go all out to channel supply to Covax, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, and low- and middle-income countries, which have very little vaccine coverage.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O. director general, called on wealthy countries not to order Covid booster shots while most countries are still struggling to give their residents initial vaccines.CreditCredit…Christopher Black/World Health Organization, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Representatives of Pfizer met privately with senior U.S. scientists and regulators on Monday to press their case for swift authorization of coronavirus booster vaccines, amid growing public confusion about whether they will be needed and pushback from federal health officials who say the extra doses are not necessary now.

The high-level online meeting, which lasted an hour and involved Pfizer’s chief scientific officer briefing virtually every top doctor in the federal government, came on the same day that Israel started administering third doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to heart transplant patients and others with compromised immune systems. Officials said after the meeting that more data — and possibly several more months — would be needed before regulators could determine whether booster shots were necessary.

The twin developments underscored the intensifying debate about whether booster shots were needed in the United States, at what point and for whom. Many American experts, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, have said that there is insufficient evidence yet that boosters are necessary. Some, though, say Israel’s move may foreshadow a government decision to at least recommend them for the vulnerable.

Pfizer is gathering information on antibody responses in those who receive a third dose, as well as data from Israel, and expects to submit at least some of that to the Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks in a formal request to broaden the emergency authorization for its coronavirus vaccine.

But the final decision on booster shots, several officials said after the meeting, will also depend on real-world information gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about breakthrough infections — those occurring in vaccinated people — that cause serious disease or hospitalization.

And any recommendations about booster shots are likely to be calibrated, even within age groups, officials said. For example, if booster shots are recommended, they might go first to nursing home residents who received their vaccines in late 2020 or early 2021, while older people who received their first shots in the spring might have a longer wait. And then there is the question of what kind of booster: a third dose of the original vaccine, or perhaps a shot tailored to the highly infectious Delta variant, which is surging in the United States.

“It was an interesting meeting. They shared their data. There wasn’t anything resembling a decision,” Dr. Fauci said in a brief interview Monday evening, adding, “This is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle, and it’s one part of the data, so there isn’t a question of a convincing case one way or the other.”

A spokeswoman for Pfizer said in a statement: “We had a productive meeting with U.S. public health officials on the elements of our research program and the preliminary booster data.”

With less than half of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, some experts said that the country needed to remain focused on getting all Americans their first dose. The Food and Drug Administration’s most important task, they said, is to increase public confidence by granting full approval to the coronavirus vaccines in use, which for now are authorized on an emergency basis.

“At this point, the most important booster we need is to get people vaccinated,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University in Atlanta.

Within the Biden administration, some fear that if Americans are convinced that coronavirus vaccines provide only short-lived immunity before requiring a booster, they will be less likely to accept a shot. But those concerns could fall by the wayside if data from Israel, expected in the next several weeks, shows conclusively that immunity wanes after six to eight months, significantly raising the risks for older people or other vulnerable populations.

The administration convened Monday’s session in response to last week’s announcement by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, that they were developing a version of their vaccine that targets the Delta variant, and reporting promising results from studies of people who received a third dose of the original vaccine six months after the second.

The new data is not yet published or peer-reviewed, but when the companies announced that they would submit data to the Food and Drug Administration for authorization of booster shots, it caught the Biden White House by surprise.

In an unusual joint statement Thursday evening, hours after the Pfizer-BioNTech announcement, the F.D.A. and the C.D.C. pushed back.

VideoVideo player loadingAt least 64 people were killed when the new coronavirus isolation ward at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in Nasiriya, Iraq, caught fire. It was not immediately clear what had caused the fire.CreditCredit…Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press

After a catastrophic fire in southern Iraq that killed at least 64 people, some victims’ relatives gathered in the holy city of Najaf on Tuesday to bury their dead, while dozens more were left waiting in limbo outside the wreckage of the hospital in a nearby city where flames had swept through a coronavirus isolation ward the night before.

Health officials on Tuesday offered different explanations for what had caused the fire at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriya, such as an electrical short or an exploding oxygen canister. Patients, relatives and health workers were among the dead from a blaze so intense that at least 22 of the bodies could not immediately be identified.

The fire echoed a similar one that killed more than 80 people and injured more than 100 at a coronavirus hospital in Baghdad in April. That blaze was believed to have been caused by a spark igniting improperly stored oxygen canisters. Some of the patients hooked up to ventilators were burned alive in their beds along with visiting relatives who would not leave them. The hospital had no working fire alarm and no sprinkler system, and Iraq’s health minister at the time resigned in response.

The two tragedies within three months were a reminder of the longstanding problems that have plagued Iraq’s health care system and other public services, which suffer from years of cumulative corruption and mismanagement. In many hospitals, visiting relatives crowd coronavirus wards, and most lack procedures for properly storing oxygen cylinders or preventing or fighting fires.

President Barham Salih of Iraq, in a tweet, blamed the latest loss of life on “persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis.” Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the detention of the provincial health director, the hospital director and the provincial civil defense director.

The city of Nasriya was a center of the protests that brought down Iraq’s government two years ago, and protesters rushed into the streets again after the fire on Monday night and into Tuesday, calling for the resignation of more officials.

Once the fire started, it spread with devastating speed and burned for three hours, according to witnesses.

On Tuesday morning, relatives were still combing through the charred rubble of the 70-bed facility looking for evidence of their missing loved ones.

At the scene of the fire late Monday night, civilians rushed to help rescue the wounded and to carry out the dead.

“When I arrived, the fire had completely engulfed the isolation ward,” said Ali Mahmoud, an unemployed engineer who put out Facebook messages calling for activists to help firefighters and rescue teams.

Iraq is in the midst of a third wave of coronavirus infections. Last week, the country reached a high of 9,000 new cases a day with more than 17,000 dead since the pandemic began, according to the Health Ministry. The infection and death rates are believed to be significantly undercounted because many people believe it is safer to be treated at home.

global roundup

A vaccination site in Lyon, France, last week. The Delta variant of the coronavirus now accounts for half of new infections in the country.Credit…Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

More than 1.3 million people in France were reported to have booked appointments for coronavirus shots within hours of President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of new vaccination requirements as the authorities scrambled to fend off a rise in infections driven by the Delta variant.

The surge in registrations, reflected in data provided by Doctolib, a widely-used private online booking platform, represents nearly 2 percent of France’s population. It comes after Mr. Macron said on Monday that inoculation would be made mandatory for health care workers and that proof of immunization or a recent negative test would soon be required to enter restaurants and cultural venues.

With the fast-spreading Delta variant taking hold, however, it was uncertain whether the measures would be enough to avoid a fourth wave of the virus in France. Delta already accounts for about half of new infections in the country.

Mr. Macron’s announcement came just three days after nightclubs reopened for the first time in 16 months, which many believed had symbolically signaled the completion of France’s protracted efforts to emerge from the pandemic. But the new measures dashed hopes of a return to a prepandemic normal and of a smooth summer vacation season.

In his televised address, Mr. Macron spoke of “a strong resurgence of the epidemic” that would require France to redouble use of “a key asset”: vaccines.

He announced that he wanted to pass a law that would require all health workers to get vaccinated by Sept. 15 and that the goal was now to “put restrictions on the unvaccinated rather than on everyone.”

The law is likely to pass this summer as most political parties are in favor of mandatory vaccinations for health care workers.

After Mr. Macron’s announcement, the French health minister, Olivier Véran, said on television, “Starting Sept. 15, if you are a health care worker and you’re not vaccinated, you won’t be able to work and you won’t be paid.”

Starting July 21, anyone entering a cultural venue or an amusement park will also need to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for the virus. The requirement will be extended in August to restaurants, shopping centers, hospitals, retirement homes and long-distance transportation.

France will also start charging money for some virus tests, which until now were free, “to encourage vaccination rather than increased testing,” Mr. Macron said.

The new restrictions could tarnish vacation plans for teenagers who have only been eligible for vaccination since mid-June, but who will also be subjected to the new rules in restaurants and other venues. Gabriel Attal, the government’s spokesman said the authorities would seek to make the restrictions flexible. “It is out of the question to impose a hellish summer” on young people, he said on Tuesday.

The government aims to get two-thirds of people fully protected by the end of August, but public demand has dwindled in recent weeks because of vaccine hesitancy and a growing sense among many people that the virus is no longer a threat.

On Monday, Mr. Macron stopped short of making vaccinations obligatory but added that such an option may be considered, “depending on the evolution of the situation.”

In other news from around the world:

  • Doctors in Britain have warned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to lift almost all of England’s coronavirus-related restrictions starting July 19 could have “potentially devastating consequences” as the Delta variant spreads. Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, a senior figure in the British Medical Association, said that the government’s decision was “irresponsible” and would lead to increased infection rates and hospitalizations. And a special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organization, Dr. David Nabarro, told the BBC on Tuesday that the pandemic was “advancing ferociously around the world” and that it was “too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom.”

Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.

Fans at a Korea Baseball Organization league game last summer in Seoul. In the Asia Pacific region, vaccination rates are relatively low, the Delta variant is surging and several countries are reimposing lockdowns.Credit…Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Last summer, as Major League Baseball reeled from coronavirus outbreaks and canceled games, its analog in South Korea became a poster child of how to successfully hold spectator sports in a pandemic.

Now the roles are reversed. As M.L.B. prepared to hold its All-Star Game, canceled last year, in front of a capacity crowd in Denver, the Korea Baseball Organization suspended its season on Monday after five players tested positive for the coronavirus.

The news from South Korea is another sign of backsliding in the Asia Pacific region, where vaccination rates are relatively low, the Delta variant is surging and several countries are reimposing lockdowns.

A year ago, American baseball fans and broadcasters looked to Asia, where the virus was largely under control, to fill a programming void. As dozens of M.L.B. players and staff members were infected and its season delayed by nearly four months, K.B.O. opened its season last May, with live coverage on ESPN, cardboard cutouts in the stands and actual cheerleaders dancing to K-pop anthems. Pro baseball leagues in Taiwan and Japan also started their seasons.

K.B.O. teams played most of last season in empty stadiums, but this year they have been allowed to welcome back some fans. In and around Seoul, the percentage of fans allowed back started at 10 percent and rose to 30 percent last month.

As late as November, no major outbreaks had been traced to K.B.O. stadiums in South Korea, the league’s secretary general, Ryu Dae Hwan, told Bloomberg News at the time. But the league would be vulnerable, he warned, if the national caseload rose.

Now, cases in South Korea have surged to their highest levels of the pandemic. On Tuesday, the country recorded more than 1,000 new infections for the seventh straight day. More than 40 percent of them were in the Seoul area, and health officials estimated that about a quarter were driven by the Delta variant.

Health officials have warned that, by mid-August, the daily infection rate could double from its current level. The rate — 2.1 infections per 100,000 people — is about a third of what the United States is recording, according to a New York Times database. But because only about 11 percent of South Korea’s population has been fully vaccinated, compared with 48 percent in the U.S., people there are more vulnerable to severe infection and hospitalization.

The rise in cases has prompted a scramble for shots. On Tuesday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said that it had paused vaccination appointments for more than 1.6 million people ages 55 to 59 for one week because available doses had been exhausted, Reuters reported.

After calling off two games last week, K.B.O. suspended its season indefinitely on Monday, just as the government tightened movement and gathering restrictions in Seoul and nearby regions to their severest levels yet. The season will be on hold until at least Aug. 9. Only a week of games has been officially canceled so far because the league had always planned to take a three-week break for the Summer Olympics.

Fans in South Korea expressed exasperation with the league’s decision. Others criticized the two teams that reported the infections, the NC Dinos of Changwon and the Doosan Bears of Seoul. (The former beat the latter last fall, live on ESPN, to win last year’s K.B.O. championship.)

The league has a 44-page manual of Covid protocols, including requirements that players must sanitize their hands before and after taking the field or entering a locker room. They are also advised to sit in a zigzag pattern if they eat at restaurants as a way of limiting airborne transmission of the virus.

In a statement, the Doosan Bears apologized to its fans and league officials for the cases among its players, and promised to be “even more thorough in the future.”

An Australian government ad to promote immunization depicts a young woman lying in a hospital bed, gasping for air.Credit… 

Australians have lashed out at the government after the release of a graphic advertising video that depicts a woman with severe symptoms of Covid-19, arguing that it unfairly blames younger people, most of whom are ineligible for vaccination.

The campaign, released on Sunday and aimed at encouraging Australians to get vaccinated, depicts a sweating woman lying in a hospital bed gasping for air. Her eyes are desperate. She claws at the breathing tube in her nose. “Covid-19 can affect anyone,” reads the text that follows. “Stay home. Get tested. Book your vaccination.”

The advertisement first aired in Sydney, a city of more than five million people that is battling a ballooning outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. On Tuesday, the authorities reported 89 new cases and Australia’s second death from the virus this year as concerns continue over a slow vaccine rollout.

Only about 9 percent of Australia’s population is fully inoculated, according to New York Times data, and those younger than 40 can only receive the AstraZeneca shot after getting clearance from a doctor. The majority are not eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, the only other vaccine authorized for use in Australia.

“Is the new Covid ad satire?” tweeted Emma Husar, a former member of Australia’s opposition Labor party, adding that the government had given Australians conflicted advice and failed to order sufficient doses.

Dan Ilic, an Australian comedian, parodied the ad by adding a voice-over suggesting that the woman in the video was 39, and therefore months away from being eligible for a Pfizer vaccine. “Turn 40 sooner,” he said.

Australian officials defended the campaign, which they said was intended to be shocking. “It is quite graphic, and it’s meant to be graphic,” the country’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, told reporters on Sunday.

“It is meant to really push that message home that this is important.”

There have been 100 reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome in the nearly 13 million people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Johnson & Johnson’s beleaguered Covid-19 vaccine may be associated with a small increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare but potentially serious neurological condition, federal officials said on Monday. The Food and Drug Administration has added a warning about the potential side effect to its fact sheets about the vaccine.

The risk appears to be very small. So far, there have been 100 reports of the syndrome in the nearly 13 million people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States.

Here are answers to some common questions about the syndrome and its connection to vaccination.

Guillain-Barré is a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells. It can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. Although the symptoms often pass within weeks, in some cases, the condition can cause permanent nerve damage. In the United States, there are typically 3,000 to 6,000 cases of the syndrome per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is most common in adults over 50.

The cause of the syndrome is unknown. It has also been reported in people with Covid-19.

This is not the first vaccine that has been linked to Guillain-Barré, although the risk appears to be tiny. A large swine flu vaccination campaign in 1976 led to a small uptick; the vaccine caused roughly one extra case of Guillain-Barré for every 100,000 people vaccinated. The seasonal flu shot is associated with roughly one to two additional cases for every million vaccines administered.

The shingles vaccine Shingrix may also increase the risk of the condition.

Of the 100 reports of the syndrome after vaccination, 95 cases resulted in hospitalization, and one was fatal.

The syndrome was generally reported about two weeks after vaccination, primarily in men, many of whom were 50 or older, officials said. There is not yet enough evidence to establish that the vaccine causes the condition, but the F.D.A. will continue to monitor the situation.

There is not yet any data to suggest a link between the condition and Covid-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or by Moderna, both of which rely upon a different technology.

The syndrome is most likely to appear within 42 days of vaccination, the F.D.A. says. You should consult with a doctor if you begin to experience weakness or tingling in your arms and legs, double vision or difficulty walking, speaking, chewing, swallowing or controlling your bladder or bowels.

If the link between the vaccine and Guillain-Barré is real, it appears to be far outweighed by the risks of Covid-19, experts said. In the United States, almost all hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 are happening in those who are unvaccinated, the C.D.C. said in a statement. The agency recommends that everyone who is 12 or older be vaccinated.

Processing residents for vaccination in Dautai, a village in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

GARH MUKTESHWAR, India — When a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections reached India’s countryside this spring, the village of Khilwai took immediate action. Two testing centers were set up, and 30 positive cases were isolated. The outbreak was contained with just three deaths.

It was a different story in the two villages on either side of Khilwai. Testing remained limited. The local health center in one village had been closed, its staff sent away to a larger hospital. The coronavirus spread, and at least 30 people in each village died with Covid-19 symptoms.

But even as the three villages in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, diverged in their handling of the coronavirus, they have been united in another way: a vaccine hesitancy that is prevalent throughout India and threatens to prolong the country’s crisis.

The combination of an uneven virus response — a reflection of huge inequality in resources and the vagaries of local attitudes — and a struggling vaccination campaign has left officials warning of a third wave of infections when the second has at best only leveled off. Any sense of rapid relief like the one now prevailing in the United States is unlikely anytime soon.

Just 5 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated, while about 20 percent have had a first dose. That gives the country insufficient protection against the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, which first surfaced in India.

At the same time, the country continues to report tens of thousands of new infections and close to 1,000 deaths each day, numbers that are almost certainly an undercounting. Resigned talk of a third wave is indicative of how virus fatigue, and the catastrophic toll of hundreds of thousands of people in the last wave, have resulted in a new definition of acceptable loss.

Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan last month. Rumors of the city’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.Credit…Joshua Bright for The New York Times

From the moment U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions followed about the future of city life.

Density was done for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give cities their economic might.

But now city sidewalks are returning to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have dispelled early fears that density is a primary driver of Covid-19.

What was so alluring, then, about the End of Cities?

Prophecies about the demise of urban life have morphed to match the moment: Surely disease will kill cities, or congestion will, or corruption, or suburbanization, or fiscal crises, or technology, or crime, or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics before).

Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief that it will fall next time.

That ideological strand goes back to Thomas Jefferson. U.S. cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They’ve been viewed as unhealthy places to live, particularly for families.

The pandemic struck as this ideological disdain for cities was again becoming a central theme of partisan politics in the United States, with Donald J. Trump and other conservative politicians and commentators seeming to delight in any sign of urban struggles.

It is true that some cities lost residents during the pandemic. Residents moved away at higher rates from New York City, but it appears that many relocated to smaller towns on the region’s periphery.

That is not so much a story of population or power redistributing away from New York as a superstar region, but one of a metro area that is growing even larger.

Laura Ingraham at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., in 2019.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Back in December, before the queen of England and the president-elect of the United States had their turns, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Afterward, he urged everyone else to get it, too.

Since then, a different message has been a repeated refrain on the prime-time shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel — a message at odds with the recommendations of health experts, even as the virus’s Delta variant and other mutations fuel outbreaks in areas where vaccination rates are below the national average.

Mr. Carlson, Ms. Ingraham and guests on their programs have said on the air that the vaccines could be dangerous; that people are justified in refusing them; and that public authorities have overstepped in their attempts to deliver them.

Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham last week criticized a plan by the Biden administration to increase vaccinations by having health care workers and volunteers go door to door to try to persuade the reluctant to get shots.

“Going door-to-door?” Ms. Ingraham said. “This is creepy stuff.”

Mr. Carlson, the highest-rated Fox News host, with an average of 2.9 million viewers, said the Biden plan was an attempt to “force people to take medicine they don’t want or need.” He called the initiative “the greatest scandal in my lifetime, by far.”

Served up to an audience that is more likely than the general population to be wary of Covid vaccines, the remarks by Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham echoed a now-common conservative talking point — that the government-led effort to raise vaccination rates amounted to a violation of civil liberties and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The comments by the Fox News hosts and their guests may have also helped cement vaccine skepticism in the conservative mainstream, even as the Biden administration’s campaign to inoculate the public is running into resistance in many parts of the country.

Public health experts have said that a strong vaccination effort is critical for the United States to outrun the virus, which has killed more than four million people worldwide and continues to mutate.

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