Home News Covid-19 Live Updates: Virus Variants Continue to Evolve, Sometimes in Dangerous Ways

Covid-19 Live Updates: Virus Variants Continue to Evolve, Sometimes in Dangerous Ways

Covid-19 Live Updates: Virus Variants Continue to Evolve, Sometimes in Dangerous Ways

Researchers at Aalborg University in Denmark analyzing coronavirus samples for the variant B.1.1.7 last month.
Credit…Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix, via Reuters

A fast-spreading coronavirus variant first observed in Britain has gained a worrisome mutation that could make it harder to control with vaccines, Public Health England reported on Monday. And on Tuesday, a team of researchers reported an experiment suggesting that this mutation might make vaccines somewhat less effective against the variant.

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.

Its spread appears to occur because of its improved ability to infect people. Experiments in test tubes suggest that some of its mutations allow the B.1.1.7 variant to hold on to cells more tightly than other coronaviruses.

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 the B.1.1.7 variant on Dec. 29, but is conducting little of the genomic sequencing necessary to track the spread of new variants that have caused concern. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 467 samples of the variant in 32 states. Officials in New York City said on Tuesday that they had identified 13 cases of the variant and were ramping up testing capacity to detect more.

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 the B.1.1.7 variant. 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.

Scientists suspect that the B.1.351 variant’s partial escape from vaccines is largely thanks to a single mutation, called E484K. Experiments indicate that the E484K mutation makes it harder for antibodies to grab onto the virus and prevent it from entering cells.

Now it turns out that some B.1.1.7 coronaviruses in Britain also have the E484K mutation.

To search for new mutations, British researchers reviewed the 214,159 genomes of coronaviruses that the United Kingdom has sequenced as of Jan. 26. In its report, Public Health England said that they found 11 samples of the B.1.1.7 variant that also had the E484K mutation.

Since that analysis, more of these viruses have come to light. NextStrain, a website where scientists gather and analyze coronavirus genomes, now identifies 16 B.1.1.7 variants that carry the E484K mutation.

These B.1.1.7 coronaviruses gained the mutation thanks to random copying errors as they multiplied inside of people. The evolutionary tree of the coronaviruses suggests that 15 of the variants descend from one common ancestor that gained the E484K mutation. Meanwhile the sixteenth variant seems to have gained the same mutation on its own.

Commenting on Monday’s report, Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said that it was impossible yet to say whether the E484K mutation would make these coronaviruses not only more contagious but more resistant to vaccines. “It’s much too early to speculate whether it will, so we’ll have to wait for data,” he said.

Just because the E484K mutation helps the B.1351 variant, the one initially found in South Africa, evade antibodies doesn’t mean it will do the same in other variants. That’s because mutations don’t have a fixed effect. The impact of a single new mutation to a virus depends on the other mutations that the variant already carries.

But in a report posted online Tuesday, Rajiv Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues reported an experiment they ran to address exactly this question. They combined the E484K mutation with other key mutations found in the B.1.1.7 variant, the one initially found in Britain. The addition of the E484K mutation made it difficult for antibodies to block the viruses. The researchers wrote that they “observed a significant loss of neutralizing activity.”

However, Dr. Gupta and his colleagues used antibodies taken from people who had received just the first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It remains to be seen whether the B.1.1.7 variant with the new mutation, E484K, can evade antibodies after a full vaccination.

Nicholas Davies, a mathematical biologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, cautioned that with so few of these new coronaviruses, it’s hard to say whether they will become more common than ordinary B.1.1.7 variant.

But it is striking that the same mutation, E484K, has now been documented arising several times in Britain, as well as in South Africa. Meanwhile, in Brazil, yet another variant has also gained the same E484K mutation on its own.

Dr. Davies speculated that the mutation may give the virus an advantage when it is spreading in populations where a lot of people have already been sick with Covid-19. It may be able to evade their antibodies to other variants. “E484K may well convey a fitness advantage in settings where there is existing immunity,” Dr. Davies said.

If so, the virus may be providing the world with a dangerous new example of a common theme in evolution. A good solution can arise more than once — such as flight, which evolved in birds, bats, and insects. Evolutionary biologists call this repeated pattern convergence.

“It’s not great to see this mutation in the B.1.1.7 lineage, although I think it’s no surprise at all,” said Dr. Andersen. “We should expect that to happen.”

Dr. Gupta argued on Twitter that the best defense against this convergence is vaccination. By making it harder for coronaviruses to get from person to person, they will have fewer chances to gain the E484K mutation or other dangerous changes.

“We need to continue vaccinating and drive down transmission,” Dr. Gupta wrote.

United States › United StatesOn Feb. 1 14-day change
New cases 139,830 –29%
New deaths 2,010 –2%
World › WorldOn Feb. 1 14-day change
New cases 460,506 –21%
New deaths 10,383 +2%

U.S. vaccinations ›

Where states are reporting vaccines given

A Covid-19 patient from Lisbon arrived at a hospital in Funchal, on the island of Madeira, Portugal, on Friday.
Credit…Duarte Sa/Reuters

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.”

Administering the Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow last month. A report in the medical journal The Lancet showed that the shots appeared to be safe and did not cause serious side effects.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

A vaccine developed in Russia, Sputnik V, has been shown to have 91.6 percent efficacy against the coronavirus, according to an analysis published in the medical journal The Lancet on Tuesday.

The peer-reviewed results, based on a clinical trial conducted on nearly 22,000 people, showed that the Sputnik V vaccine appeared to be safe and did not cause serious side effects, according to The Lancet, an early vindication for Russia, which faced international skepticism after the vaccine was approved without the release of data regarding clinical trials.

The results bring the number of vaccines whose efficacy is higher than 90 percent to three, and will leave Russia well positioned to deliver a cheap vaccine at home and abroad — two shots of the Sputnik V vaccine are necessary, each costing $10. The Sputnik V shots also do not need the deep cold storage that can make some other vaccines logistically challenging to use widely.

The study comes after the vaccine’s developer, the Gamaleya Research Institute, which is part of the Russian Health Ministry, announced in December that the vaccine showed 91.4 percent efficacy.

When a Russian health care regulator approved the vaccine in August, becoming the first in the world to do so even though the shots had yet to complete clinical trials, experts raised concerns that the authorities were trying to hastily approve a vaccine without due safeguards.

But researchers at the Gamaleya Institute had gone ahead months earlier: The head of the team that developed the Sputnik V vaccine, Denis Logunov, along with some colleagues, administered the vaccine to themselves as early as April, according to a New Yorker investigation.

Ian Jones of the University of Reading and Polly Roy of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who are both virology professors, wrote in The Lancet, “The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticized for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency.”

“But,” they added, “the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated.”

Russia began its vaccination campaign in December, and around 50 countries have pre-ordered the vaccine. Use of the Sputnik V vaccine in more than a dozen countries, including Algeria, Hungary, Iran and Venezuela, is set to begin this week.

In December, the Gamaleya Institute announced that it had partnered with the drug maker AstraZeneca to try to combine their vaccines and see if the mixture could increase efficacy.

A vial of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine with 10 doses. Moderna is seeking to pack 15 doses into a vial in the future.
Credit…Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press

The upstart drugmaker Moderna is asking U.S. regulators to allow it to increase the amount of coronavirus vaccine put into each vial by as much as 50 percent, arguing that it can speed vaccines to patients by clearing away a simple manufacturing bottleneck: Getting medicine into bottles.

The Food and Drug Administration could decide within a few weeks how much more vaccine Moderna, the developer of one of the two federally authorized Covid-19 vaccines, can put into its vials. Moderna says it can raise the number of doses per vial from 10 to as much as 15.

The company has already been ramping up production of its vaccine, only to find a bottleneck in the bottling, capping and labeling process. With F.D.A. approval, more doses could start going into each bottle quickly, a welcome boost to 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 F.D.A. 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.

Health care workers at a drive-through vaccination site in Miami last month.
Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.

Volunteers delivering testing kits in Woking, England, on Tuesday. The authorities are hoping that screening will help to track down a coronavirus variant, first found in South Africa, that has also surfaced in areas of Britain.
Credit…Leon Neal/Getty Images

LONDON — Britain, painfully aware of the dangers posed by mutations of the coronavirus after a variant fueled a surge in deaths this winter, has sounded a full-scale alarm over the detection of another variant, this one first registered in South Africa.

In one of the largest concerted testing efforts in the country since the outbreak of the pandemic, the British authorities dispatched mobile units and began testing for 80,000 residents living in areas where the variant had been detected. Free home testing kits left in mailboxes, mobile testing teams going door to door, and new screening sites were among the measures instituted across the affected regions.

As of Monday, health officials had identified 105 cases of the variant in Britain, including in London, with 11 of them not linked to international travel.

Britain, a world leader in genomic surveillance, is well placed to find mutations.

The country has submitted nearly half of the genomes held in a global library run by the nonprofit Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data.

That early alarm system is now being put to the test.

Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, said on Monday: “There’s currently no evidence to suggest this variant is any more severe. But we need to come down on it hard, and we will.” He urged residents in the affected areas to stay at home and to get tested. “This is so important so we can break the chains of transmission of this new variant,” he added.

The plan is for researchers to sequence the entire genome of any coronavirus infections found, looking for mutations. About two mutations are fixed in the virus per month, said Ewan Harrison, a director at Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, a research group of health agencies and academic institutions. He noted that with more people being infected and receiving vaccines, there would be selective pressures on the virus, causing it to adapt.

“We know these mutations may make the virus more capable of surviving in presences of antibodies from people who already had a Covid infection,” Mr. Harrison noted.

The variant found in South Africa has prompted extra concern after laboratory tests suggested it might be more resistant to some vaccines.

Roy Anderson, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London, said that because the variant was already circulating in the community, probably more widely than has so far been detected, it would be hard to nip in the bud.

“It will be very challenging, indeed, to stop it,” he said. But, he added, “You’ve got to try something.”

Britain, which is still under lockdown, has not been very successful in tracking the virus in the past. After the pandemic’s first wave last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a “world beating” contact-tracing program that aimed to help control the virus’s spread, but a New York Times investigation found that the effort was rolled out too quickly, had poorly trained staff, and suffered from technical glitches.

Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said that British scientists still expected the available vaccines to reduce hospitalizations and death for those infected with the variant. But they might be less effective, she said.

Professor Anderson of Imperial College said that the emergence of variants added to the urgency of developing vaccines that could easily be adapted or that addressed several variants of the virus at once. “There are going to be lots of other types of this virus emerging,” he said. “It is a taste of what’s to come.”

Flames near a property under construction in Perth, Australia, on Tuesday.
Credit…Paul Kane/Getty Images

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.”

Lowering the coffin of a coronavirus victim during a funeral at a graveyard in New Delhi in August.
Credit…Xavier Galiana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.”

Transportation Security Administration agents processing passengers at Denver International Airport in June.
Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

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.”

The Canadian Embassy in Beijing. A T-shirt made for embassy staff members who repatriated Canadians from the Chinese city of Wuhan last year has been criticized by the Chinese government.
Credit…Andy Wong/Associated Press

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.


The Justice Ministry in Taiwan said a man was undergoing quarantine at a friend’s home when he was abducted by debt collectors who mistook him for his friend.
Credit…David Chang/EPA, via Shutterstock

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.

Signage for Super Bowl LV outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Monday.
Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

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.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in Brussels last month. Her handling of a growing crisis over vaccine supply shortages to the European Union has shaken her steely image.
Credit…Pool photo by Olivier Hoslet

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.

Storefronts in Westwood, N.J. Despite the pandemic, some shops are seeing an uptick in business as more people stay home.
Credit…Mohamed Sadek for The New York Times

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

Captain Tom Moore at his home in September.
Credit…Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Tom Moore, the 100-year-old British Army veteran whose charity walks raised $45 million and made him a national symbol of pluck during the coronavirus pandemic, died on Tuesday.

His death was announced on his Twitter account.

Mr. Moore, nicknamed Captain Tom by the British press, had been treated for pneumonia in recent weeks and tested positive for the coronavirus last month, his daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, said on Twitter on Sunday. He was taken to a hospital because he needed help breathing, she said, and his condition then deteriorated.

Dapper, spry and droll, Mr. Moore ambled his way into the hearts of people across Britain 82 steps at a time — the number it took to cover the length of a brick patio beside his garden in Marston Moretaine, a village an hour north of London. He did 100 laps before turning 100 last April. With backing from donors including Prince William, who called him a “one-man fund-raising machine,” Mr. Moore quickly raised 32.8 million pounds, or $45 million, for the National Health Service.

In the process, Mr. Moore became a pop-culture phenomenon, with television appearances, a book deal, a chart-topping song and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, 94, who came out of seclusion to bestow the honor in July.

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