Amid a deepening crisis in India, the World Health Organization announced Monday that it had designated the B.1.617 variant, which has been growing more common in the country, as a variant of concern. Scientists still don’t know much about the variant yet, but they are worried that it may be helping to fuel the rise in the nation’s coronavirus infections, which experts say are likely undercounted.
“There is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies” of the variant, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of the W.H.O.’s coronavirus response.
Dr. Van Kerkhove also said that a study of a limited number of patients, which had not yet been peer reviewed, suggested that antibodies from vaccines or infections with other variants might not be quite as effective against B.1.617. However, the agency said that vaccines will likely remain potent enough to provide protection against B.1.617.
More details will be released in a report on Tuesday, Dr. Van Kerkhove said.
The variant was first detected in India at the end of 2020 but became more common in the country starting in March. It has since been found in 32 countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. The W.H.O.’s announcement comes as growing numbers of medical experts are adding their voices to a chorus of condemnation of the Indian government’s response and calling for nationwide restrictions to try to limit the horrifying death toll.
Although the official figures are already staggering — more than 350,000 new infections daily this month and nearly 250,000 total deaths — some experts say that the numbers are a vast undercount and estimate that India is on pace to suffer more than one million deaths by August.
Initially, the W.H.O. classified B.1.617 as a “variant of interest,” because it had certain mutations that have been linked to higher transmission and the potential to evade vaccines. At a news conference on Monday, agency officials announced they were elevated it to a higher level.
Other variants of concern include B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, and P.1., which was originally detected in Brazil.
But experts caution that it’s not yet clear just how much of a factor B.1.617 has played in the catastrophic rise in cases in India. They point to a perfect storm of public health blunders, such as permitting massive political rallies and religious festivals in recent months.
“I am concerned about 617 — I think we have to keep a very close eye on it,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. But he cautioned that relatively few variant samples are being analyzed in India, making it hard to know just how dangerous B.1.617 is. “We really, really need better data out of India,” he said.
Over the weekend, the Indian Medical Association said in a statement it was time for a “complete, well-planned, pre-announced” lockdown to replace the scattershot regional restrictions currently in place across the nation of 1.4 billion.
The association said it was “astonished to see the extreme lethargy and inappropriate actions from the Ministry of Health in combating the agonizing crisis born out of the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Much of the criticism has been directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, which allowed hundreds of thousands to gather at a large religious festival and held campaign rallies even as the virus surged.
“India squandered its early successes in controlling Covid-19,” the editorial said.
The medical journal also cited an estimate by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that projected that India would witness a total of more than a million coronavirus deaths by August — far higher than government figures would suggest.
On May 2, for example, the institute said that total deaths were actually about 642,000, about three times higher than the government’s own number for that date, just over 217,000.
Referring to the possibility that there may actually be a million victims by August, the Lancet editorial said, “If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe.”
On Monday, India recorded more than 365,000 new cases and 3,754 deaths, according to data from the Health Ministry.
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, wrote in a tweet on Sunday that it was likely that between two to five million people were being infected every day and that India’s “true” coronavirus death toll was “closer to 25,000 deaths” each day.
He based his own calculations, he wrote, on the number of cremations taking place in the country.
Officials in New York are trying to boost a flagging vaccination campaign by setting up temporary walk-in vaccination sites at eight subway and train stations this week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Monday.
From May 12 to May 16, the walk-in sites will be open at various times at subway stations including the ones at 179th Street in Jamaica, Queens, and at Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sites at the Long Island Rail Road station in Hempstead and a Metro-North Railroad station in Ossining will be open from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
A site will be open at Penn Station in Manhattan from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and at Grand Central Terminal from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
People vaccinated at the rail and subway locations can get a free seven-day MetroCard or two free one-way tickets for the Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North. Officials will use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the stations, Mr. Cuomo said. The program is a pilot and may be extended, he said.
“You are walking into the subway station anyway, you are walking past the vaccination site, it’s a one-shot vaccination, stop, take a few minutes, get the vaccine,” he said.
The pop-up sites at the stations — and the free tickets — are part of a broader, nationwide push to offer creative incentives to get people vaccinated. New Jersey, for example, is offering a “shot and a beer” for residents who get their first vaccine dose in May and visit participating breweries in the state.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday a plan to give free tickets to events and attractions like the New York Aquarium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or professional soccer games to people who get vaccinated.
Vaccinations so far have helped drive down positivity rates and hospitalizations across New York State, Mr. Cuomo said. He said on Monday that the number of hospitalizations statewide was 2,016, the lowest since Nov. 15. The statewide seven-day average rate of positive test results announced by the state on Sunday — 1.45 percent — was the lowest since Oct. 28.
Still, Mr. Cuomo said the pace of vaccinations was tapering off, both in New York and nationwide, potentially allowing the coronavirus to linger. Younger people and people who question the vaccine’s safety and doubt the trustworthiness of the government in particular were not getting vaccines, he said.
Mr. Cuomo also said on Monday that the State University of New York and the City University of New York planned to require that students returning for in-person instruction in the fall be fully vaccinated. He said the requirement would be contingent on the federal government granting full approval to the Covid-19 vaccines being used now. The three in use are only authorized for emergency use.
Pfizer and the German company BioNTech said on Friday that the companies had applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for full approval of their vaccine for use in people 16 and older, but the process could take months. Moderna plans to apply for full approval for its Covid-19 vaccine this month, the company said last week.
Mr. Cuomo said that half the seats at home games for the New York Islanders during the National Hockey League playoffs, which begin this month, will be reserved for people who are vaccinated. They will have to stay three feet apart, he said. The other half will be available to unvaccinated people who must remain six feet apart, he said. Everyone will be required to wear a mask.
In New York City, officials said they were making plans to provide the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 12 to 15, once it is authorized as is expected this week.
“We want to immediately get to work vaccinating young people,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference on Monday.
The health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, said the city would begin administering the vaccine to those adolescents at its existing network of vaccination sites. The city has also been working with pediatricians to prepare them to answer questions about the vaccine and eventually administer it in their offices, and it would distribute information about vaccination at city schools to try and reach a broad audience of eligible teenagers.
Michael Gold contributed reporting.
Early in the pandemic, there was hope that the world would one day achieve herd immunity, the point when the coronavirus lacks enough hosts to spread easily. But over a year later, the virus is crushing India with a fearsome second wave and surging in countries from Asia to Latin America.
That means if the virus continues to run rampant through much of the world, it is well on its way to becoming endemic, an ever-present threat.
Virus variants are tearing through places where people gather in large numbers with few or no pandemic protocols, like wearing masks and distancing, according to Dr. David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
While the outbreak in India is capturing the most attention, Dr. Heymann said the pervasive reach of the virus means that the likelihood is growing that it will persist in most parts of the world.
As more people contract the virus, developing some level of immunity, and the pace of vaccinations accelerates, future outbreaks won’t be on the scale of those devastating India and Brazil, Dr. Heymann said. Smaller outbreaks that are less deadly but a constant threat should be expected, Dr. Heymann said.
“This is the natural progression of many infections we have in humans, whether it is tuberculosis or H.I.V.,” said Dr. Heymann, a former member of the Epidemiology Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a former senior official at the World Health Organization. “They have become endemic and we have learned to live with them and we learn how to do risk assessments and how to protect those we want to protect.”
Vaccines that are highly effective against Covid were developed rapidly, but global distribution has been plodding and unequal. As rich countries hoard vaccine doses, poorer countries face big logistical challenges to distributing the doses they manage to get and vaccine hesitancy is an issue everywhere. And experts warn the world is getting vaccinated too slowly for there to be much hope of ever eliminating the virus.
Only two countries have fully vaccinated more than half of their populations, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. They are Israel and the East African nation of the Seychelles, an archipelago with a population of fewer than 100,000. And just a handful of other countries have at least partially vaccinated nearly 50 percent or more, including Britain, tiny Bhutan, and the United States.
Less than 10 percent of India’s vast population is at least partly vaccinated, offering little check to its onslaught of infections.
In Africa, the figure is slightly more than 1 percent.
Still, public health experts say a relatively small number of countries, mostly island nations, have largely kept the virus under control and could continue keeping it at bay after vaccinating enough people.
New Zealand, through stringent lockdowns and border closures, has all but eliminated the virus. Dr. Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago who helped devise the country’s coronavirus response, said New Zealand would likely achieve herd immunity by immunizing its population, but it has a long way to go with only about 4.4 percent of New Zealanders at least partially vaccinated.
“All of the surveys show there is a degree of vaccine hesitancy in New Zealand, but also a lot of people are very enthusiastic,” Dr. Baker said. “So I think we will probably get there in the end.”
While new daily cases have remained at near-world record levels, the number of deaths has dropped from a peak in February, going against the normal pattern of high cases followed eventually by high deaths. If that trendline continues, it could offer a glimmer of hope for a future scenario that scientists are rooting for: Even as the virus spreads and seems to be hurtling toward becoming endemic, it could become a less lethal threat that can be managed with vaccines that are updated periodically to protect against variants.
“It may be endemic, but not in a life-threatening way,” Dr. Michael Merson, a professor of global health at Duke University and former director of the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS said. “It may be more like what we see with young kids, a common cold like disease.”
Madeleine Ngo contributed reporting.
One-armed, two-armed, side-armed: once an unceremonious greeting, hugging became a far from casual move during the deadly coronavirus pandemic — replaced by waves, nods and the fist or elbow bump.
But in England, hugging friends and family will be government-approved starting next Monday as the government loosens more restrictions, part of a gradual reopening of society and the economy that began this spring after months of national restrictions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the changes Monday evening.
Mr. Johnson said that England was taking “the single biggest step” on its road out of lockdown, adding that the public should “protect these gains” by being cautious and using common sense. On Monday, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland reported zero coronavirus deaths in a 24-hour period. There were four deaths in Wales.
In this new stage, outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people will be allowed and indoor gatherings will be allowed for up to six people or two households. Indoor dining, movie theaters and museums will also be able to resume operations, among other places. Hostels, hotels and bed and breakfasts will reopen. Mr. Johnson said people would be allowed to make their own decisions about close contact — such as hugs — with family and friends, though he urged social distancing in places like offices, pubs, restaurants and other settings.
After a year where many people abstained from physical contact for fear of infecting themselves or others, news the embrace would be legal was welcomed, though with some mirth. Some joked that they had forgotten entirely how to execute the move. Others took issue with the fact that the government had tried to stop people from hugging at all, or worried that it was too soon to allow such close contact.
“I’m a hugger ,” said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to reporters on Monday, adding that many Londoners were looking forward to relaxation of the ban. “I enjoy people’s company and I know people are ready for me to be hugging again. The first person I’m going to hug is my mum.”
And there were hints that hugs, among other types of physical touch, had already made a comeback.
Still, some experts warned that those wanting to hug their friends with wild abandon should save those arms for their favorite friends.
“It would worry me if we were advocating we can hug all of our friends every time we meet them again,” said Catherine Noakes, a professor from the University of Leeds and member of a government advisory body, to the BBC. Hugging should not be “too frequently,” she advised. “Keep it short, try and avoid being face to face, so perhaps turn your face away slightly, and even wearing a mask could help.”
Mr. Johnson seemed to agree, saying, “I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones.”
That impulse control may be too much for writer and actor Stephen Fry, who joked on Twitter that while he had largely abided by the rules this past year, he may have a hard time showing restraint. “If you see me in the street — run for it,” he wrote.
Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that it would hold the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that in normal times draws millions of Muslims to the kingdom, but did not say how many pilgrims would be allowed to come, which countries would be allowed to send them or what coronavirus precautions they would have to take.
The hajj, the ritual all Muslims are supposed to complete at least once, was also held last summer, but under tightly controlled conditions. Only about 1,000 Muslims from Saudi Arabia, including Saudis and foreign nationals living in the kingdom, were able to take part, down from about 2.5 million pilgrims in 2019; the rituals were performed at social distance, with masks, and the pilgrims were not allowed to kiss the Kaaba, the holy shrine at the center of Mecca that pilgrims are supposed to circle as they complete the hajj.
For the first time in living memory — the hajj had not been canceled since Saudi Arabia’s founding in 1932, though it has been restricted at various points in history during plagues, wars and political disputes — the holiest mosque in Islam was nearly empty, with a few carefully spaced circles of pilgrims dressed in white rather than the throngs who normally crowd the Grand Mosque.
The near-cancellation came as a spiritual and emotional blow to Muslims who had been hoping (and saving up) to participate, in many cases for years. Because of the demand, it is normally difficult to secure a hajj visa even in normal times.
It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which is balancing the much-needed tourism revenue it stands to gain from the hajj with the public health requirements of the coronavirus pandemic, will again restrict the hajj so tightly.
Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said only that details would “be announced at a later date,” though he noted on Twitter that there would be “preventative & precautionary measures that ensure the health & safety of pilgrims.”
In other news from around the world:
Doctors in India are concerned about an increasing number of potentially fatal fungal infections affecting either people who have Covid-19 or those who have recently recovered from the disease. The condition, known as mucormycosis, has a high mortality rate and was present in India before the pandemic.
European soccer’s governing body is holding talks with Britain’s government on Monday to discuss moving this month’s Champions League final to London or another city because of travel restrictions. Those rules have made it almost impossible for English fans of the finalists — the Premier League rivals Manchester City and Chelsea — to attend the match, set for May 29 in Istanbul. A decision will most likely be announced within 48 hours.
China said on Sunday that it had taken steps to prevent coronavirus cases from entering the country — over the top of the world’s tallest mountain — including the installation of a dividing line on the summit to prevent climbers from the Chinese side and the Nepal side from coming into contact.
President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic said on Sunday that he was open to relaxing indoor masking rules in the United States as more Americans are vaccinated against the virus. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci said that as vaccinations climb, “we do need to start being more liberal” in terms of rules for wearing masks indoors.
Mujib Mashal, Abby Goodnough, Austin Ramzy and Tariq Panja contributed reporting.