White House Details Almost $2 Billion Plan to Track Variants

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking before a House panel on Thursday.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The White House on Friday announced an almost $2 billion plan for expanding and improving the nation’s ability to track coronavirus variants, an effort that public health experts have said is desperately needed to fight against variants that could drive another wave or potentially undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.

More than half of the funding, $1 billion, would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states to monitor those variants by examining positive virus test samples. The tracking relies on genome sequencing, in which researchers read every genetic letter in a coronavirus’s genome to find out whether the virus belongs to a known lineage or is an entirely new variant with new mutations.

That money will be steered to the collection of samples and sequencing, then sharing the data with health officials and scientists, the White House said. The C.D.C. has so far leaned heavily on commercial laboratories to conduct that work.

The investment is the most significant effort by the federal government yet to speed up its ability to locate variants, which account for over half of the nation’s coronavirus infections and could, officials fear, prolong the pandemic in many parts of the country. One variant, a more contagious and more lethal variant known as B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, has become the dominant version in the United States, contributing to a surge in Michigan, the worst in the nation.

While new U.S. cases, hospitalizations and new deaths have declined from their peaks in January, new cases have begun increasing again after a weekslong plateau, reaching an average of more than 70,000 a day as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database.

“State and local public health departments are on the front lines of beating back the pandemic, but they need more capacity to detect these variants early on before dangerous outbreaks,” Andy Slavitt, a White House pandemic adviser, said at a news conference on Friday.

Carole Johnson, the Biden administration’s testing coordinator, said in an interview on Friday that the money, part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan, would arrive at the C.D.C. “quickly” and get to states by early May.

“We’re hoping that that gives a quick jolt to our response efforts,” she said.

The rest of the funding will go to two programs that appear to be aimed at organizing a more permanent architecture for sequencing samples. Four hundred million dollars will go to what the White House described as partnerships between state health departments and academic institutions. They could help develop new surveillance methods for tracking viruses.

And $300 million will go to creating a unified system that will allow scientists to store, share, and make sense of the vast amounts of new data. The goal is to quickly detect the spread of variants and enable prompt decisions about stopping them.

“This is about both doing the near term work of supporting sequencing but also really building out that infrastructure,” Ms. Johnson said.

In February, the Biden administration put forward $200 million as a “down payment” on a more robust surveillance program, with the goal of sequencing 29,000 samples weekly. Officials described it as an early step in building out the federal government’s capacity to sequence more samples.

Earlier this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said that the B.1.1.7 variant, which is currently estimated to be about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original version, had become the most common source of new infections in the United States. The C.D.C. has also been tracking the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.

Ms. Johnson said that the funding would help health officials across the country respond to outbreaks in a more sophisticated way, including by surging testing in certain areas or considering new mitigation strategies.

When B.1.1.7 was first detected in the United States at the end of December, experts warned that the country was poorly prepared to track coronavirus variants, lacking a national plan for collecting samples and analyzing their mutations to determine the variants’ spread.

In January, the United States was sequencing samples from less than 1 percent of positive coronavirus tests. Researchers said that simply wasn’t enough information to know how common variants really were and how quickly they were spreading. By contrast, Britain, the world’s leader in genomic surveillance, was sequencing up to 10 percent of new positive tests.

Over the past three months, the C.D.C. has charted a steady rise in the number of coronavirus genomes sequenced weekly in the United States, recording a new high of 14,837 for the week ending April 10. The number represented about3 percent of the country’s positive tests that week.

A nurse preparing vaccine doses at a medical office in Los Angeles this month.
Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

Scientists have long said that giving people a single course of a Covid-19 vaccine might not be sufficient in the long term, and that booster shots and even annual vaccinations might prove necessary.

In recent days, that proposition has begun to sound less hypothetical.

Vaccine makers are getting a jump-start on possible new rounds of shots, although they sound more certain of the need for boosters than independent scientists have.

Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla said on Thursday that a third dose of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine was “likely” to be needed within a year of the initial two-dose inoculation — followed by annual vaccinations.

Albert Bourla, the Pfizer chief, said in a conversation hosted by CVS Health, that people may need to get Covid vaccine shots annually, like flu shots. Some vaccines are only given once, while others need annual boosters, he said. (An earlier version of this post included a quoted comment in which he misstated the number of vaccine doses required for polio immunity — more than one dose is needed.)

Dr. David Kessler, who runs the Biden administration’s vaccine effort, told a House subcommittee on Thursday that the government was also looking ahead. One factor at play is the spread of coronavirus variants and whether further vaccination could better target mutant strains.

Mr. Bourla said that “a likely scenario” is “a third dose somewhere between six and 12 months, and from there it would be an annual re-vaccination.” Moderna said this week that it was at work on a booster for its vaccine, and Johnson & Johnson has said that its single-shot vaccine will probably need to be given annually.

Dr. Kessler emphasized the “strong efficacy” of the current vaccines, including against the variants, but said that the government was “taking steps to develop next generation of vaccines that are directed against these variants if in fact they can be more effective.”

He was one of a handful of top federal health officials at the House hearing who implored Americans to get vaccinated and sought to reassure the nation that all three federally authorized vaccines are safe. They said little about restarting Johnson & Johnson shots, which came to a halt after the Food and Drug Administration called for paused to examine a rare blood-clotting disorder.

Late Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had scheduled a new emergency hearing for April 23.

As of Thursday, more than 125 million people in the country had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 78 million who have been fully vaccinated by Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine or the two-dose series made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

In February, Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, said that they planned to test a third shot and to update their original vaccine. The F.D.A. has said that vaccine developers will not need to conduct lengthy trials for vaccines that have been adapted to protect against variants.

On Tuesday, Moderna said that its vaccine continued to provide strong protection in the United States against Covid-19 six months after it is given, and the company’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, told CNBC that he hoped to have booster shots ready by the fall.

“Vaccination is the key to overcoming this pandemic,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said on Friday.
Credit…Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany received a first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine on Friday, a show of confidence for the vaccine after weeks of confusion over its use across the European Union.

“I am happy that today I received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Ms. Merkel said in a statement. On Twitter, the message included an image of her vaccination documents, though none of the chancellor rolling up her sleeve as other leaders have done.

Some have criticized Ms. Merkel for not being more public about her inoculation at a time when many Germans are wary of getting a shot, especially of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has been hampered by concerns over very rare blood clots and logistical bungling in the European Union.

The vaccine was initially given only to people under 60 in Germany, amid concerns that it had not been tested widely enough on older people. Then it was halted entirely after dozens of mostly young women developed an extremely rare clotting that proved fatal in at least seven cases. Since last week, the AstraZeneca vaccine has been available for Germans 60 and older.

“I thank everyone who has been active in the vaccination campaign — and everyone who gets vaccinated,” Ms. Merkel said. “Vaccination is the key to overcoming this pandemic.”

The chancellor was vaccinated hours after urging Parliament to tweak legislation that would allow her to enforce more stringent national restrictions as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country. Germany recorded 25,831 new cases on Friday, and the infection rate has risen to 160 per 100,000 people nationwide, well above the rate of 100 set by Ms. Merkel’s government as manageable.

Ashish Anand, 38, and Akanksha Chadda, 33, with their children, 8-year-old Rehan and 4-year-old Gunika, outside their home in Noida, India.
Credit…Smita Sharma for The New York Times

Ashish Anand had dreams of becoming a fashion designer. The former flight attendant borrowed from relatives and poured his $5,000 life savings into opening a clothing shop outside New Delhi selling custom-designed suits, shirts and pants.

That was in February 2020, just weeks before the coronavirus struck India and the government enacted one of the world’s toughest nationwide lockdowns.

Unable to pay the rent, Mr. Anand closed down two months later.

As a second coronavirus wave strikes India, which reported a new daily high of more than 216,000 cases on Friday, the pandemic is undoing decades of progress for a country that has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Already, deep structural problems and the sometimes impetuous nature of the government’s policies had hindered growth. A shrinking middle class would deal lasting damage.

Now Mr. Anand and his wife and his two children are among millions of Indians in danger of sliding out of the middle class and into poverty. They depend on handouts from his in-laws, and khichdi — watery lentils cooked with rice — has replaced eggs and chicken at the dinner table.

Sometimes, he said, the children go to bed hungry.

“I have nothing left in my pocket,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, front, on the Cyclone roller coaster at the opening of Luna Park in Coney Island last week.
Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

This has been a spring of reopenings around New York City.

Bars, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and even amusement parks are coming back to life after the shutdown. Rather than just turn on the lights and open the doors, many owners have sought to celebrate with meaningful gestures.

When Coney Island reopened its amusement park this month, the first passengers to ride the Cyclone, the 90-year-plus wooden roller coaster there, were 100 essential workers from nearby Coney Island Hospital who had been selected in a raffle.

One of the riders was Dawn Lanzisera, who works in the psychiatric emergency room and grew up near the Brooklyn neighborhood. “It’s so great to be here and see life return,” she said.

As soon as the speeches had concluded and the gates had opened, the rickety roller coaster cars, filled with hospital employees, started their climb to the top, one that offered stunning views of the ocean and boardwalk.

As the coaster plunged 85 feet, the screams may have reflected the release of a pandemic year’s worth of tensions.

global roundup

A vaccination center at the Catalonia Railway Museum in Vilanova, Spain.
Credit…David Ramos/Getty Images

The European Union is unlikely to buy new doses of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines, a French minister said on Friday, the first public comment from a government official indicating that the bloc will do without two vaccines it long counted on to move out of the pandemic.

France’s industry minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, told RMC radio that although no final decision had been made, “it is highly probable” that no further doses of the vaccines would be ordered.

Several European countries briefly suspended the administration of AstraZeneca vaccine last month before resuming it, recommending use in older age groups only.

“We have not started talks with Johnson & Johnson or with AstraZeneca for a new contract, but we have started talks with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna,” Ms. Pannier-Runacher said.

The comment came days after the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said that it was negotiating a contract extension with Pfizer/BioNTech, pivoting away form AstraZeneca’s vaccine on which it had initially bet big.

“We need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth,” Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s president, said of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

On Wednesday, Denmark became the first country to permanently stop the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

In other news around the world:

  • Four more prefectures in Japan will be placed under quasi-emergency restrictions next week as health officials recorded more than 4,570 new coronavirus cases on Friday. The measures will go into effect on Tuesday in three prefectures neighboring Tokyo, as well as the prefecture surrounding the city of Nagoya, joining six others where restrictions were put in place earlier this month. The rules allow local authorities to order bars and restaurants to curtail their hours, and issue fines to those that don’t comply. While Japan has controlled the coronavirus better than most nations, a fourth wave of infections has added to concerns over the Tokyo Olympics, which are due to begin in less than 100 days.

  • A company in South Korea said it would lead a consortium in manufacturing more than 100 million Sputnik-V vaccine doses per month beginning in August, reflecting growing interest globally in the Russian-made shot. The announcement, by Huons Global, came days after India’s government said it would begin production of the Sputnik vaccine for domestic use and export, joining about 60 countries that have approved use of the shot. The Russian sovereign wealth fund backing the Sputnik vaccine has a separate deal with another Korean manufacturer to produce 150 million doses per month.

Shashank Bengali and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

Visitors at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens last month. Greece is taking a gradual approach to reopening its borders to tourists.
Credit…Byron Smith for The New York Times

Greece will open its borders to travelers from the United States for the first time in over a year, starting on Monday, provided they show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test, a Greek government spokesman said on Friday.

The move is part of a broader easing of restrictions for travelers from the European Union and five other countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Serbia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

For U.S. residents, the white paper vaccine certificates issued by the Centers for Prevention and Disease Control will be accepted for entry.

Once approved to enter, visitors from those countries will not be required to quarantine. Until now, all foreigners arriving in Greece were required to test negative for the coronavirus 72 hours before their departure and to quarantine for seven days upon arrival.

“This is part of a phased approach to gradually open up Greece for the tourism season,” the government spokesman said. “At first there will be a limited number of direct flights from these countries, but gradually more will be added, especially toward the summer.”

The decision came even as the country faces a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. More than 200,000 active coronavirus infections were reported by the Greek health ministry on Thursday, and 104 deaths — the highest daily death toll in the latest wave of the pandemic.

Incoming travelers must fly to one of a handful of destinations: Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Chania, Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Santorini or Corfu.

Greece had initially planned to fully open its borders to foreign visitors on May 14, but the government decided to accelerate those plans to avoid an influx of arrivals at the same time.

“It is safer to take a gradual approach,” the spokesman said.

A healthcare worker prepares a vaccine dose in Asuncion on Wednesday. Paraguay is considering establishing ties with China to obtain more vaccine.
Credit…Santi Carneri for The New York Times

In Paraguay, the government of Taiwan has built thousands of homes for the poor, upgraded the health care system, awarded hundreds of scholarships and helped fund a futuristic Congress building. But the alliance is facing an existential threat as Paraguay’s quest for Covid-19 vaccines becomes increasingly desperate.

Paraguayan officials across the political spectrum say the time has come to consider dumping Taiwan, which doesn’t export vaccines, to establish diplomatic ties with China, which does.

Beijing’s one-China principle forces countries to choose between having full diplomatic relations with China or Taiwan, an island that it regards as Chinese territory. In recent years, three countries in Latin America severed ties with Taiwan after secret talks with Beijing. All three were early recipients of Chinese vaccines.

This week China’s main Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer, Sinovac, made a gesture that is certain to fuel speculation about Beijing’s plans in Paraguay. The South American soccer federation Conmebol, which is based in Paraguay, said it was receiving a donation of 50,000 doses of CoronaVac, the vaccine produced by Sinovac.

The line at a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday.
Credit…Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

With more people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 in the United States and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely giving vaccinated people the green light to travel, a summer vacation may be a reality for millions of Americans.

The price of plane tickets, which are typically purchased well in advance, is a mark of how people feel about the economy. And in the week after March 11, when President Biden set a goal for returning much of America to regular life by July 4, airfare prices for summer travel shot up, according to data from the travel booking app Hopper.

In addition, days after the speech, a tranche of federal stimulus checks arrived in bank accounts.

“During that shift in mid-March, there wasn’t a change in supply, but there was a big change in sentiment,” said Adit Damodaran, Hopper’s chief economist. “A lot of people started to think, ‘Maybe I could start to plan that summer vacation.’”

Airlines are feeling optimistic. Southwest Airlines is recalling all flight attendants from voluntary extended leave beginning June 1. As of late March, American Airlines had returned to 90 percent of its 2019-level bookings.

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Iceland is one destination allowing fully vaccinated travelers into the country.
Credit…Hazel Thompson for The New York Times

If 2020 was the summer of the pandemic-enforced road trip, many people seem to be hoping that 2021 will be the summer they can travel overseas.

But roadblocks abound. Among them are the rise of variant cases in popular destinations like Europe and confusion about the role that vaccine “passports” will play as people begin crossing borders.

Still, there is reason for optimism. The number of vaccine doses administered each day in the United States has tripled in the last few months, and President Biden has said the United States is on track to vaccinate every American adult who wants it by the end of May.

Some airlines have eyed May to expand international flights as vaccines become more available. Global hotel companies are preparing for more guests, and tour companies are ramping up. Trips that emphasize the outdoors and uncrowded places have become even more popular compared with last year.

“Hoteliers are chafing at the bit” to reopen and are able to do so quickly, said Robin Rossman, the managing director of the hospitality analytics company STR. The global hotel sector, though, will likely take up to two years to make a full return, he said.

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