LONDON — British government scientists are increasingly finding the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain to be linked to a higher risk of death than other versions of the virus, a devastating trend that highlights the serious risks and considerable uncertainties of this new phase of the pandemic.
The scientists said last month that there was a “realistic possibility” that the variant was not only more contagious than others, but also more lethal. Now, they say in a new document that it is “likely” that the variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.
The British government did not publicly announce the updated findings, which are based on roughly twice as many studies as its earlier assessment and include more deaths from Covid-19 cases caused by the new variant, known as B.1.1.7. It posted the document on a government website on Friday.
The reasons for an elevated death rate are not entirely clear. Some evidence suggests that people infected with the variant may have higher viral loads, a feature that could not only make the virus more contagious but also potentially undermine the effectiveness of certain treatments.
But scientists are also trying to understand how much of the increased risk of death may stem from the propensity of the variant to spread very easily through settings like nursing homes, where people are already vulnerable.
No matter the explanation, scientific advisers to the British government said on Saturday, the new findings laid bare the dangers of countries easing restrictions as the variant takes hold.
The variant has spread to at least 82 countries, and is being transmitted 35 to 45 percent more easily than other variants in the United States, scientists recently estimated. American officials have suggested that the variant could be the dominant source of infection there by March.
“The overall picture is one of something like a 40 to 60 percent increase in hospitalization risk, and risk of death,” Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and scientific adviser to the British government, said in an interview on Saturday. Referring to the tight restrictions on socializing that are in effect across Britain, he said, “It reinforces the policy measures in place.”
Most Covid-19 cases, even those caused by the new variant, are not fatal. And the government scientists were relying on studies that examined a small proportion of overall deaths.
Over all, the government scientists’ assessment that the variant was “likely” to be linked to a higher risk of death still only signaled 55 to 75 percent confidence in the finding.
“I think these results are possibly genuine, although there are still several limitations and we need to understand what causes it,” said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government.
She added that “there are other explanations of this increased severity,” among them that the variant may “transmit disproportionately in settings with frailer people,” like nursing homes, because it is more transmissible.
The biggest danger of the new variant remains its propensity to spread: It is thought to be 30 to 50 percent more transmissible, though some scientists put the figure higher than that.
Two officials at the Food and Drug Administration said on Saturday that they had erred by allowing manufacturers to sell Covid-19 antibody tests that had not been proved accurate, flooding the United States with unreliable blood tests early in the pandemic.
The officials, Dr. Jeffrey Shuren and Dr. Timothy Stenzel, said in an essay published in The New England Journal of Medicine that the F.D.A.’s guidance on March 16, 2020, which allowed companies to sell tests without emergency use authorization, “was flawed.”
Within two weeks of that guidance, 37 manufacturers told the F.D.A. that they were introducing the tests in the United States, a number that swelled to 164 by the end of April, the officials said. Many of those tests turned out to be inaccurate, and by May the F.D.A. demanded that companies submit data that proved that their tests were reliable or they could be banned.
As of this month, the officials said, the F.D.A. had issued 15 warning letters regarding the tests, removed references to 225 tests from its website and issued “import alerts” regarding 88 companies, meaning their imported tests will receive additional scrutiny — and could be blocked — at the border.
“Our experience with serology tests underscores the importance of authorizing medical products independently, on the basis of sound science, and not permitting market entry of tests without authorization,” they wrote in the essay, referring to the blood tests. “Knowing what we know now, we would not have permitted serology tests to be marketed without F.D.A. review and authorization, even within the limits we initially imposed.”
Soon after the tests first appeared in the United States, scientists discovered that many were flawed, even as some government officials and employers were saying the tests could be crucial to easing restrictions imposed during the pandemic. One review, which was not peer-reviewed, found that of 14 tests on the market, only three gave consistently reliable results.
Many others gave false positive results, signaling that someone had already been infected with the coronavirus and had a heightened level of protection when that was not the case. Even some of the most effective tests did not detect antibodies in 10 percent of people who actually had them.
The F.D.A.’s website lists the antibody tests that have been given emergency authorization and provides information about the effectiveness of those tests.
In the essay, Dr. Shuren and Dr. Stenzel acknowledged that, although the F.D.A. had been operating with “limited and evolving information” and that other factors led to the prevalence of the faulty tests, the March 16 policy was what had “allowed it to happen.”
The Covid-19 vaccine rollout is gathering speed in the United States, despite continued difficulties, delays and confusion, and it received another boost when the Food and Drug Administration told the drugmaker Moderna that it could put four additional doses of the vaccine into each vial.
That solution, announced Friday, could increase the nation’s vaccine supply by as much as 20 percent.
The average number of shots administered daily has been increasing steadily since late December. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported more than two million new vaccinations, bringing the latest seven-day average to about 1.66 million a day, well above the Biden administration’s target of 1.5 million. About 35.8 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and about 12.1 million of them have also received the second dose, according to the C.D.C.
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it had secured enough vaccine doses to inoculate every American adult, with 200 million more doses of vaccine lined up by the end of summer. In total, that would be enough vaccine to cover 300 million people with tens of millions of doses to spare.
But President Biden’s announcement arrived with a caveat. Logistical hurdles most likely mean that many Americans will still not be vaccinated by the end of the summer.
“It was a big mess,” Mr. Biden said on Thursday, expressing frustration with the former administration. “It’s going to take time to fix, to be blunt with you.”
Moderna’s move to put more vaccine into its vials is also not yet a certainty. Federal officials want it to submit more data showing the switch would not compromise vaccine quality. But the continuing discussions are a hopeful sign that the nation’s supply could increase faster than expected, simply by allowing the company to load up to 14 doses in each vial instead of 10.
The limited supply has not been the only problem the Biden administration has faced as it pushes to accelerate vaccinations. Issues such as burdened local health departments without enough staff members to inoculate people or without experience carrying out a vaccination campaign on such a big scale meant that on Jan. 1 just a quarter of Covid-19 vaccine doses that had already been delivered across the United States had been used. By Friday, that figure had risen to 70 percent.
But many states remain plagued by shortages, as demand far outpaces supply and health care providers struggle to predict how many doses they might receive.
The United States is just one of many nations around the world racing to vaccinate its people before the new, more contagious virus variants become dominant.
The United Kingdom, where one such variant was discovered and has spread rapidly, was the first country to forgo keeping second doses of the vaccine on reserve, instead opting to administer as many first doses as quickly as possible.
On Friday, France’s top health authority said that one dose of vaccine, rather than two, would be sufficient for most people who have recovered from Covid-19. It appears to be the first nation to make such a determination.
According to a study posted online this month, which was not peer reviewed, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York found that Covid survivors had far higher antibody levels after both the first and second doses of the vaccine and might need only one shot. But some scientists have urged caution, warning that more data was needed to prove that those antibodies could effectively stop the virus from replicating.
While wealthier countries have been able to make deals with drug manufacturers to secure enough vaccine to ensure their citizens can be vaccinated, poorer countries have not, leaving many unprotected — an imbalance that is expected to have global ripple effects.
The leaders of the World Health Organization and the United Nations agency for children, UNICEF, warned in a joint statement this week that the vast chasm of inequality in the global vaccine rollout would “cost lives and livelihoods, give the virus further opportunity to mutate and evade vaccines and will undermine a global economic recovery.”
Rebecca Halleck and
Frederick K.C. Price, who founded a megachurch and televangelism broadcast that made him a popular voice for Black Christians, died on Friday evening of complications from Covid-19, a spokeswoman for the family said. He was 89.
Mr. Price died at Torrance Memorial Medical Center near Los Angeles, said Holly Baird, the spokeswoman.
“He fought the good fight of faith and laid hold of eternal life,” a statement from his family posted to Facebook by his son, Frederick K. Price Jr., said.
In an Instagram post earlier this week, the church said the elder Mr. Price was hospitalized with Covid-19 and asked its members “to pray for the complete restoration” of Mr. Price’s lungs, heart and kidneys “as he faces the health challenges posed by Covid-19.”
Mr. Price founded the Crenshaw Christian Center in Inglewood, Calif., in 1973, according to the church’s website. Its membership has grown to over 28,000 from 300 at its inception.
In addition to services in the FaithDome, a 10,000-seat building, Mr. Price began televising his services locally in 1978 through Ever Increasing Faith Ministries, the missionary outreach arm of the church, after he had “received instruction from God,” according to the church’s website. Mr. Price had begun broadcasting his services on the radio years earlier, and expanded the televised broadcasts “in an effort to reach Black America.”
After the broadcast program found an audience in New York — its second-largest market behind Los Angeles — Mr. Price fulfilled “a vision he had for many years to establish a church in Manhattan,” according to the church’s website. He conducted the first service of Crenshaw Christian Center New York in May 2001.
Mr. Price stepped down as pastor of the church in 2009, handing the reins to the younger Mr. Price.
He is survived by his wife, Betty, and their four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The governor of Montana lifted the state’s mask mandate this week, citing the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines and new, business-friendly protections as he reversed his predecessor’s order, making the state the latest to undo a mask requirement.
The move by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican who took office last month, comes after several other Republican governors, in Iowa, North Dakota and Mississippi, ended statewide mask mandates that they had issued earlier in the pandemic. Several Montana counties and Native American tribes said they would still require people to wear masks in businesses or other indoor spaces, resulting in another patchwork of rules that has been the hallmark of the American response to the virus crisis.
On Thursday, the day after Mr. Gianforte announced that he would lift the mask order, Dr. Gregory Holzman, the state medical officer, said he would be resigning from his role. A spokesman for the state health agency said he had been considering the move “for a while” and that he would be staying with the department until April to help with vaccine distribution.
More than 30 states have mask mandates, and President Biden has required that masks be worn on federal property, but the reversal of orders by several Republican governors in recent weeks could signal that states plan to further ease restrictions as the number of virus cases and hospitalizations fall from their peak in January. Still, many public health experts have warned that no longer requiring masks could lead to another rise.
Mr. Gianforte, the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years, said in reversing the order that he felt comfortable doing so because people were beginning to get vaccines and because of a new state law shielding businesses from lawsuits by people who contract the virus while at the business, except in extreme cases. Still, only about 51,000 Montanans have received both doses of a virus vaccine, less than 5 percent of the state’s population, according to state data.
Even as he rescinded the requirement, Mr. Gianforte said he would continue to wear a mask himself, and he urged Montanans to do so as well “to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors.”
Mr. Gianforte’s move came days after Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, renewed the agency’s pleas for people to wear masks, and specifically encouraged Americans to wear tightly fitting masks or double up.
“The bottom line is this: Masks work, and they work when they have a good fit and are worn correctly,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday that it was not asking airlines to require Covid-19 tests for passengers on domestic flights, a policy that had been floated by President Biden’s transportation secretary but criticized as too onerous by airline executives, union officials and elected officials.
“At this time, C.D.C. is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel,” the agency said in a statement, adding that it would “continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of Covid-19 in the travel space.”
Proof of a negative test result is already required for passengers boarding international flights bound for the United States, under a policy the C.D.C. imposed last month as concern grew about more contagious coronavirus variants circulating in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere.
Last weekend, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said that federal officials were having “an active conversation with the C.D.C. right now” about whether to require airline passengers to have a negative coronavirus test before boarding domestic flights as well.
“What I can tell you is, it’s going to be guided by data, by science, by medicine, and by the input of the people who are actually going to have to carry this out,” Mr. Buttigieg told “Axios on HBO” on Sunday.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said the next day that providing more coronavirus testing at places like airports could help to curb the spread of the virus by people who are contagious but do not know it because they lack obvious symptoms.
“There’s more gathering that happens in airports, and so, to the extent that we have available tests to be able to do testing, this would be yet another mitigation measure to try and decrease risk,” Dr. Walensky said.
Critics have argued that such a rule would be difficult to put into effect and could inflict more financial damage on an airline industry already reeling from the sharp drop in travel during the pandemic.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told the House committee on transportation and infrastructure last week that the move could lead to airline bankruptcies.
In its statement on Friday, the C.D.C. reiterated its advice that people travel only for essential reasons. It also recommended that travelers take viral tests before and after travel, as well as self-quarantining for seven days even if test results are negative.
Earlier on Friday, a group of airline executives met virtually with President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey D. Zients.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was later asked at a news briefing whether any conclusion had been reached at the meeting about whether to test all passengers ahead of flights.
Ms. Psaki said that would be done “through a policy process internally. But as I conveyed yesterday, reports that there is an intention to put in place new requirements, such as testing, are not accurate.”
After the Chinese government cautioned its citizens to avoid traveling for the Lunar New Year holiday, millions of people seem to have bowed to government warnings, according to railway statistics reported by Chinese media.
The surge of train travel that usually happens in the 15 days before the holiday was 68.8 percent lower than last year, the China State Railway Group said.
In a typical year, hundreds of millions of people traverse large areas of the country for the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, to reunite with their families.
The 40-day traveling season, often described as the largest annual migration on planet, generally leads to a surge in air and ground traffic. For some people in China, it is the only time they visit their families over the course of the year.
But this year there were just 52 million journeys in that period, about 116 million fewer than the preholiday period last year. In 2020, most migrant workers and other travelers had already made their way home for the holiday by the time that the government declared a national crisis because of the coronavirus.
This year, fearful of lingering outbreaks, the authorities ordered many people not to travel, and local officials ordered people arriving in rural areas for the holiday to spend two weeks in quarantine and pay for their own coronavirus tests — enough to deter many migrant workers.
Some Chinese provinces and cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, urged residents to stay put, instead of making their annual journey home. Many employers encouraged staff members against traveling, giving them incentives to stay in the cities and work through the holiday.
On Sunday, the National Health Commission reported seven new infections, all among travelers in quarantine after arriving from overseas. The government also reported 17 new asymptomatic cases, which are not included in the official count. According to a New York Times database, China has recorded a total of about 100,000 infections and 4,636 deaths.
Sameer Yasir contributed reporting.
Peru swore in a new health minister on Saturday after accusations became public this week that the official previously in the role had used her position to get a former president a Covid-19 vaccine before it was publicly available.
The official, Pilar Mazzetti, who had been in that role since July and led the country’s health office during the previous president’s administration, resigned on Friday. Her replacement, Óscar Ugarte, took office on Saturday.
The news of the inoculation of the former president, Martin Vizcarra, was reported by a Peruvian newspaper, which said that he had jumped the line for the vaccine just weeks before he was impeached. Mr. Vizcarra claimed that he had received the shot because he was a volunteer in a trial for the Sinopharm vaccine.
Peru began its inoculation campaign on Tuesday.
In recent months, Ms. Mazzetti, the country’s fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic, had come under increasing criticism for her handling of the health crisis. The country, with a population of about 32 million, has recorded about 1.2 million virus cases and more than 43,000 deaths. By contrast, Malaysia, with roughly the same sized population, has recorded 261,805 cases and 958 deaths.
Before resigning, Ms. Mazzetti responded to criticism from lawmakers about the situation involving her former boss and said she did not know that he was being considered for the vaccine.
“At no point was I aware of or consulted on the possibility of the vaccination of Mr. Martin Vizcarra,” Ms. Mazzetti told lawmakers on Thursday.
The director of the Sinopharm trial in Peru did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese scientists refused to share raw data that might bring the world closer to understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, independent investigators for the World Health Organization said on Friday.
The investigators, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Chinese city of Wuhan where the first major outbreak took place, said disagreements over patient records and other issues were so tense that they sometimes erupted into shouts among the typically mild-mannered scientists on both sides.
China’s continued resistance to revealing information about the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the scientists say, makes it difficult for them to uncover important clues that could help stop future outbreaks of such dangerous diseases.
“If you are data focused, and if you are a professional,” said Thea Kølsen Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist on the team, then obtaining data is “like for a clinical doctor looking at the patient and seeing them by your own eyes.”
For 27 days in January and February, the team of 14 experts for the World Health Organization led the mission to trace the origins of the pandemic. Several said their Chinese counterparts were frustrated by the team’s persistent questioning and demands for data.
Chinese officials urged the W.H.O. team to embrace the government’s narrative about the source of the virus, including the unproven notion that it might have spread to China from abroad, according to several members of the team. The W.H.O. scientists responded that they would refrain from making judgments without data.
“It was my take on the entire mission that it was highly geopolitical,” Dr. Fischer said. “Everybody knows how much pressure there is on China to be open to an investigation and also how much blame there might be associated with this.”
In the end, the W.H.O. experts sought compromise, praising the Chinese government’s transparency, but pushing for more research about the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019.
Despite a rising clamor from museum directors, who begged the government to let them open their doors, museums in France have remained closed since Oct. 30.
That was until one mayor, from the city of Perpignan, in southern France, took action. Louis Aliot, Perpignan’s mayor, is a member of National Rally, the far-right political party associated more with a hard line on immigration than with support for the arts.
He became the unlikely champion of culture when he defied the national government and passed a decree allowing the city’s four museums to welcome visitors this week for the first time in over three months.
“Perpignan has suffered enough, and its inhabitants need this patch of blue sky,” Mr. Aliot said by email. “Don’t come and tell me it is more dangerous to go to a museum than a supermarket.”
He said the museums were following safety protocols, admitting one person per 100 square feet — the same standard as for most retail stores — and with masks required.
France’s government has challenged Mr. Aliot’s decree in the courts, but on Friday, Perpignan’s four museums remained open. The action has received some public support — an article in Le Monde called it a “great political coup” — and seems to have emboldened others.
On Friday, André Laignel, the socialist mayor of Issoudun, a town in the middle of the country, said he would reopen an art museum there on Saturday. And many at France’s cultural institutions agree it is time for museums to reopen, even if they disagree with Mr. Aliot’s renegade action.
Frédéric Jousset, a member of the Louvre’s board, said that the mayor’s decision was irresponsible, but added that it was a smart public relations move.
In other virus news from around the world:
The Australian state of Victoria announced one local coronavirus transmission on Saturday, as it entered its first day of a snap lockdown in response to an outbreak at a quarantine hotel. Victoria had 20 active cases as of Saturday afternoon. The lockdown, which took effect just before midnight on Friday, was intended to last for five days and prevent a third wave of infection from inundating a state whose capital, Melbourne, ended a 111-day lockdown in October. Professional tennis players who are in Melbourne for the Australian Open are considered “essential workers” and have been allowed to continue their tennis matches, albeit without fans.
In Britain, the University of Oxford said on Saturday that it would begin testing the impact of its Covid-19 vaccine, developed with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, on children and young people between the ages of 6 and 17. “While most children are relatively unaffected by coronavirus and are unlikely to become unwell with the infection, it is important to establish the safety and immune response to the vaccine in children and young people, as some children may benefit from vaccination,” Dr. Andrew Pollard, chief investigator for the trial at Oxford, said in a statement. In the United States, Pfizer and Moderna have enrolled children 12 and older in clinical trials of their vaccines and hope to have results by the summer.
Lebanon received its first batch of Covid-19 vaccines on Saturday, according to The Associated Press. The doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were expected to be used in an inoculation campaign beginning on Sunday. The country, which faced an uptick in cases after a huge explosion in Beirut over the summer, imposed a strict lockdown last month to try to limit the spread of the virus.
When Senate Republicans sought recently to wall off some federal education aid from schools that decline to reopen once teachers can be vaccinated, a top Democrat accused them of staging a “political show.” If it was, it was a show Republicans were more than happy to put on.
Sensing a potent political opportunity amid parental angst across the country, leading congressional Republicans have begun to hammer relentlessly on President Biden, Democrats and teachers’ unions to open schools quickly. They say doing so is a crucial and long overdue step to keep school-age Americans from falling too far behind during the pandemic.
But the effort to turn shuttered school buildings into a rallying cry is also a way for Republicans to appeal to suburban voters and women — two groups it has been hemorrhaging in the Trump era — as Mr. Biden and his administration struggle to keep their pledge to reopen schools within 100 days.
“It is a good issue because people care about it,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Republican and the author of the budget provision, which was rejected on party lines.
Mr. Blunt was one of multiple Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, speaking out on the Senate floor and in committees in recent days about the urgent need to return students to in-person learning.
Republicans argue that they have an advantage on the issue over Democrats, who are politically allied with unions representing teachers who have reservations about returning to school grounds while the pandemic persists.
Democrats contend that Republicans have only recently begun agitating for schools to be reopened and never put similar pressure on the Trump administration to do so, reluctant to undermine their own party’s president. And they say that a major reason that it has been so difficult for schools to return to normal is that former President Donald J. Trump did a poor job managing the virus crisis.
The race to distribute vaccines and the emergence of more contagious variants of the coronavirus have put a renewed spotlight on the plight of grocery workers in the United States. The industry has boomed in the past year as Americans have stayed home and avoided restaurants.
But in most cases that has not translated into extra pay for workers. After Long Beach, Calif., mandated hazard pay for grocery workers, the grocery giant Kroger responded last week by saying it would close two locations.
And now, even as experts warn people to minimize time spent in grocery stores because of new coronavirus variants, The New York Times found only 13 states that had started specifically vaccinating those workers.
“Grocers are known to have these very thin margins, which they do, but they have been very profitable during the pandemic,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has researched retailers’ pay during the pandemic. “Employers by and large, with only a few exceptions, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, ended hazard pay months and months ago.”
She added, “If you look at how the virus has gone since then, it’s so much more deadly now.”
Brookings found that while 13 of the largest retail and grocery companies in the United States earned $17.7 billion more in the first three quarters of 2020 than they did a year earlier, most stopped offering extra compensation to their associates in the early summer. At the same time, some opted to buy back shares and gave big sums to executives.
The tension is especially high on the West Coast, where cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have required hazard pay for essential grocery workers — and are now facing threats of store closures and even an end to food bank donations from grocers.
It has been an exhausting 10 months for Toni Ward Sockwell, an assistant manager at Cash Saver, a grocery chain, in Guthrie, Okla. She has been helping to oversee about 40 anxious employees during a deadly pandemic, vigilantly disinfecting counters at the store and worrying about passing the virus to her elderly mother.
News of the vaccines initially boosted her spirits, but her optimism faded as she learned that grocery store workers in Oklahoma would not be eligible for them until spring.
“Health care workers are heroes in my eyes,” she added. “But we are forgotten.”
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.