A year ago, as millions of people in China were starting life under lockdown and the United States was recording its first coronavirus cases, much was unknown about the contagion that was already leaping across borders and oceans.
Experts have since made great strides in understanding the virus and how to protect the world against it, with several vaccines developed and authorized at record speed. But as the world approaches 100 million cases — including 25 million in the United States as of Saturday — a new set of questions has been raised about variants of the virus that could slow or even reverse the progress that has been made toward ending the pandemic.
One of those questions is how effective the current vaccines will be against these altered versions of the virus, which initially appeared in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and the United States. Some appear to be more contagious than the original version, and all are little understood.
The variant first detected in Britain could become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned, and would very likely lead to further surges in cases and deaths.
That variant has been found in at least 22 states. On Saturday night, the University of Michigan said that it had suspended all athletic activities after several cases of the variant were found among people linked to the athletic department.
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain ignited concern when he said at a news conference that the variant first found in his country might also be associated with a slightly higher chance of death, even as he acknowledged it was too soon to be sure. His own scientific advisers urged restraint in interpreting preliminary evidence.
Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC on Saturday that the variant could be increasing deaths in Britain simply because it is more contagious, spreading so rapidly that it is overwhelming the British health system.
Dr. Collins pointed to a study that indicates the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines hold up against the British-affiliated variant, but he said the variant first found in South Africa, called B.1.351, is “more of a concern.”
That variant “seems to have a somewhat more significant effect on the vaccine response, although it still looks like it would be protected,” he said. “Fortunately we have not yet seen that variant in the U.S., but it would not surprise me if it appears.”
Studies published last week show that the variant identified in South Africa is less susceptible to the antibodies created by natural infection and by the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Those vaccines can be altered in a matter of weeks, but experts warn that it would be difficult to update them constantly.
Vaccine trials being conducted in South Africa by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson will provide more real-world data on how the vaccines perform against the new variant there. Those results are expected within the next few weeks.
The coronavirus vaccine wasn’t supposed to be a golden ticket. A tiered and efficient rollout was meant to inoculate frontline workers and the most vulnerable before the rest of society.
But scattershot and delayed distribution threatens to create a new temporary social class — one that includes not just people who are at higher risk for infection or severe illness and death, but also grocery store customers in Washington; Indonesian influencers; elementary schoolteachers; American celebrities; New York Post reporters and others who, because of their work or luck, have been immunized.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the only two approved so far in the United States, have been shown to be extremely effective. But people can still get the coronavirus while in the process of being inoculated, and may still be able to spread the virus afterward if they come in close contact with others or stop wearing masks.
As a result, plenty of people who have been vaccinated will wait until they are told it’s safe to gather. But others are almost certain to feel emboldened to begin congregating with their vaccinated peers. Vaccination could begin to represent not only safety from the virus but also, for some, a leg up in the job market as businesses seek to employ people who are vaccinated.
“A lot of people are going to start wanting to say, ‘Hey, send vaccinated professionals as well,’” said Jamie Baxter, the chief executive of Qwick, an Arizona-based platform that connects service workers with employers.
Eric Shoup, chief executive of Peerspace, a commercial space rental platform, said he was watching to see whether cities and states make allowances for those who have been inoculated, especially once they make up a significant portion of the population.
“There are going to be the haves and have-nots, if you will,” he said.
Health care workers are one group finding that vaccination comes with some small perks. On Friday, the N.F.L. announced that a significant percentage of the crowd at Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla., would be vaccinated health care workers, who will receive free tickets.
And on dating apps, vaccination has become a hot topic. On Tinder, vaccine mentions in user bios rose 258 percent from September to December, and on OkCupid, those who indicated they had received a vaccine were liked at double the rate of those who said they weren’t interested in getting it.
“Basically, getting the vaccine is the hottest thing you could be doing on a dating app right now,” said Michael Kaye, a spokesman for OkCupid.
With Americans desperately searching for ways to get a Covid-19 vaccine and doses in short supply, one lawmaker wants to deter people from cutting in line ahead of health care workers and older people.
Charlene Lima, a state representative in Rhode Island, introduced legislation last week that would make it a felony to vaccinate someone who is not yet eligible. An individual who knowingly received such a shot in the state could be convicted of a misdemeanor under the proposed legislation, which is co-sponsored by four Democrats.
“I think that the distribution of the Covid vaccine is literally a matter of life and death, and because of this we can’t tolerate even a hint of favoritism in its distribution,” Ms. Lima said in an interview. “Vaccine cutting is more of a problem than we imagine, so I feel that my legislation would be a strong deterrent.”
The proposal comes after reports from around the country of ineligible people getting the vaccine through a mix of luck and persistence amid a chaotic distribution plan.
In Los Angeles County, some clinics have been giving vaccines that would otherwise expire to people who stake out sites in hopes of getting a leftover dose, according to The Los Angeles Times. Officials running vaccine operations at one community health center in South Los Angeles told the newspaper that the staff refuses to throw out precious doses.
Some pharmacies in Texas are taking a similar approach. Mike Schotte, 53, and his mother, who is 72, stopped by several pharmacies near their home in Hurst to figure out which ones were distributing leftover vaccines. Though her age made her eligible for the vaccine, available appointments were scarce.
On Jan. 10, his mother got a call that there was one available dose if she could arrive within 30 minutes. “I had to go grab her, and we had to get in the car and hit it,” Mr. Schotte said. “I’m thankful.”
There was even just enough in the vial for his first dose, too.
But Mr. Schotte is not sure exactly where he and his mother will get their second vaccine doses. “We’re trying to chase the second dose,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that they’re going to get any more allotment.”
The University of Michigan said Saturday that it had suspended all sports activities for up to two weeks and told athletes, coaches and team staff members to quarantine immediately after “several” cases of a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus were found among people linked to the athletic department.
The department said the suspension had been mandated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to prevent further spread of the variant, first identified in Britain and known as B.1.1.7, which is estimated to be about 50 percent more transmissible than other variants.
“Canceling competitions is never something we want to do,” Warde Manuel, the University of Michigan athletic director, said in a statement, “but with so many unknowns about this variant of Covid-19, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread among student-athletes, coaches, staff, and to the student-athletes at other schools.”
Michigan, a member of the Big Ten Conference, has one of the most prominent athletic programs in the country. Its men’s basketball team is currently ranked seventh nationally, and the women’s team is ranked 11th. A two-week suspension would require both teams to reschedule or cancel at least four games.
Officials in Washtenaw County, which includes the University of Michigan, said Saturday that five cases of the B.1.1.7 variant had been found in the county and that other possible cases were being investigated. They said that the first case was detected on Jan. 16 within the University of Michigan community, but that it was not clear whether the subsequent cases were related to the first one.
The university administration said five cases of the variant had been detected among people associated with the school. It added that all five people were in isolation and experiencing mild or no symptoms, and that all of their close contacts had been identified, tested and placed in quarantine.
The coronavirus has disrupted college sports programs across the country, with thousands of infections among athletes, coaches and staff members. A New York Times analysis last month found that the Big Ten Conference had reported the most cases of any top league, including more than 200 at Michigan.
The first U.S. case of the B.1.1.7 variant was found in Colorado last month, and it has now been detected in at least 22 states. Federal health officials have warned that it may become the country’s dominant source of coronavirus infection by March.
In desperate times, there are many ways to stretch vaccines and speed up inoculation campaigns, according to experts who have done it.
Splitting doses, delaying second shots, injecting into the skin rather than the muscle and employing roving vaccination teams have all saved lives — that is, when the circumstances are right.
And during cholera outbreaks in war zones, Doctors Without Borders has used “takeaway” vaccination, in which the recipient is given the first dose on the spot and handed the second to self-administer later.
Unfortunately, experts said, it would be difficult to try most of those techniques right now, even though urgency is growing to speed up the lagging U.S. rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
Those novel strategies have worked with vaccines against yellow fever, polio, measles, cholera and Ebola; most of those vaccines were invented decades ago, or are easier to administer because they are oral or can be stored in a standard refrigerator.
The new mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines approved thus far are too fragile, experts said, and too little is known about how much immunity they confer.
The Biden administration should focus on speeding up the production of more robust vaccines “rather than playing card tricks” with current ones, said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the inventor of a coronavirus vaccine.
There are two strategies that might work with the current vaccines, but each is controversial.
The first is being tried in Britain. In December, faced with shortages and an explosive outbreak, the country’s chief medical officers said they would roll out all of the vaccines they had, giving modest protection to as many Britons as possible. Second doses, they said, would be delayed by up to 12 weeks and might be of a different vaccine.
There is some evidence supporting the idea: Early data from the first 600,000 injections in Israel suggests that even one dose of the Pfizer vaccine cut the risk of infection by about 50 percent.
Nonetheless, some British virologists were outraged, saying single doses could lead to vaccine-resistant strains. The Food and Drug Administration and many American vaccinologists also oppose the idea.
Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, raised a different objection to the British plan. Single doses, he warned, might inadequately “prime” the immune system; if those vaccine recipients were later infected, some might be worse off than if they had not been vaccinated at all.
As an alternative — the second strategy for stretching the vaccines — Dr. Slaoui proposed using half-doses of the Moderna vaccine.
There is strong evidence supporting that idea, he said.
One year ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party was on the verge of its biggest crisis in decades. The coronavirus had brought the city of Wuhan to a halt. In the following days, the government’s efforts to conceal the pandemic would become public, setting off an online backlash of the kind the Chinese internet hadn’t seen in years.
Then, as the blows landed faster than the Chinese propaganda machine seemingly could handle, a number of liberal-minded Chinese began to think the unthinkable. Perhaps this tragedy would impel the Chinese people to push back. After decades of thought control and worsening censorship, perhaps this was the moment that the world’s largest and most powerful propaganda machine would crack.
A year later, the party’s control of the narrative has become absolute. In Beijing’s telling, Wuhan stands not as a testament to China’s weaknesses but to its strengths. Memories of the horrors of last year seem to be fading, at least judging by what’s online. Even moderate dissent gets shouted down.
People in China should be bowing their heads this week in memory of those who suffered and died. Instead, the China internet is afire over the scandal of a Chinese actress and her surrogate babies, a tabloid controversy egged on by Chinese propaganda.
Anyone looking for lessons about China in the coming years needs to understand the consequences of what happened in 2020. The tragedy showed Beijing has the ability to control what people in China see, hear and think to a degree that surpasses even what pessimists believed. During the next crisis — whether it be disaster, war or financial crisis — the party has shown it has the tools to rally the people, no matter how ham-handedly Beijing deals with it.
In a half-dozen countries across the world, mink have become infected with coronavirus, died in large numbers and also passed the virus back to people in a mutated form. In response, at least two American companies, as well as Russian researchers, are working on coronavirus vaccines for mink.
Zoetis, a large veterinary pharmaceutical company in New Jersey with more than $6 billion in annual revenue in 2019, and Medgene Labs, a small company with about 35 employees that is based in South Dakota, are both testing vaccines in mink. They are seeking licensing of their products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Both companies said their vaccine technologies are generally similar to the one used by Novavax for a human vaccine, which is in late-stage trials. That system involves making insect cells produce the spike protein on the coronavirus, which is then attached to a harmless virus that enters the body’s cells and trains the immune system to be ready for the real thing.
All members of the weasel family are susceptible to infection and to developing some symptoms and passing on the virus, at least to others of their species. That is partly because of the proteins on the surfaces of their cells and because of the structure of their respiratory systems. Scientists don’t know why mink in particular seem to get very sick, but the crowded, caged conditions on farms may result in exposure to higher amounts of virus.
The most serious outbreak was in Denmark, which has shut down mink farming until at least 2022 because of mutations to the virus that occurred in infected mink.
Late last fall, Denmark ordered the slaughter of up to 17 million of the animals. Most of the dead mink were not allowed to be skinned for the fur trade. In average years, the country sells up to 17 million pelts, but last year’s decision killed its breeding stock as well, and there are fears that the industry will not recover.
In the United States, by contrast, about 275 mostly small mink farms produce about three million pelts annually, according to an industry group, Fur Commission U.S.A. Thousands of U.S. mink have been infected and died, but states have dealt with the problem, quarantining some farms. There have been no orders to kill mink populations, as in Denmark.
Zoetis produces many livestock, dog and cat vaccines. For pets, it makes vaccines for canine infectious respiratory disease, feline leukemia virus and others. The company began its work on an animal vaccine in February at the start of the pandemic.
A pop-up testing site may be coming to the basement of the Missouri Capitol after several lawmakers fell ill with the coronavirus this month, temporarily halting one chamber’s meetings and angering some lawmakers who said their colleagues were putting them at risk by not wearing masks.
On Friday, a Republican state senator who had said it was “my choice if I want to risk getting Covid” tested positive for the virus, according to The Missouri Independent. The state senator, Andrew Koenig, who represents parts of St. Louis County, said on Twitter that he was experiencing mild symptoms and would isolate at home. The Independent noted that he had participated in two in-person hearings in the past week before the positive test.
The virus has seriously hindered the work of many state legislatures, and at least seven state lawmakers are believed to have died from Covid-19. It has also led to statehouse debates over whether masks should be required in the buildings — or whether the politicians should meet in person at all. In New Hampshire, where the speaker of the House died of the coronavirus in December, lawmakers convened in a parking lot to conduct state business this month. Other states have held their sessions virtually.
The proposed clinic in the Missouri Statehouse would have a nurse who would provide rapid tests to lawmakers, their aides and other people who work in the building, the House’s chief clerk said, according to The Associated Press. It reported that at least 14 lawmakers had tested positive for the virus before Mr. Koenig, and said that when the House session began this month, most Democrats donned masks and most Republicans went without them.
The House halted its session this month after several lawmakers fell ill. But Caleb Rowden, the Republican leader of the State Senate, tweeted that the legislative body was planning to convene on Monday, and he urged other lawmakers to wear masks and keep their distance from one another.
“We knew this session would present unprecedented challenges,” Mr. Rowden wrote, “but we also know that challenges can lead to opportunities.”
The Kansas City Star’s editorial board has criticized members of both parties for not wearing masks while at the Capitol, and last week the newspaper wrote that the Republican leadership was failing to require basic precautions that could help avoid further delays in state business, such as by mandating masks.
“Shouldn’t common sense prevail?” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “How difficult could it be to institute a mask policy or work remotely?”
With coronavirus infections rising and a contagious new variant threatening to accelerate the pandemic, France has issued a stringent curfew, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Citizens nationwide are sequestered indoors, and businesses must close down.
In Quebec, Canadian officials imposed a similar restriction this month, running from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. It has frayed nerves: Notably, a woman who was walking her boyfriend on a leash at 9 p.m. has argued that the activity is one of the exemptions from the curfew, surely one of the pandemic’s most unexpected moments.
The question for scientists is this: Do curfews work to slow transmission of the virus? If so, under what circumstances? And by how much?
The scientific evidence on curfews is far from ideal. There has not been a pandemic like this one in a century. Although curfews make intuitive sense, it’s very hard to discern their precise effects on viral transmission, let alone transmission of this coronavirus.
Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, believes curfews are, on the whole, an effective way to slow the pandemic. But he acknowledged his view is based on intuition.
“Scientific intuition does tell you something,” Dr. Longini said. “It’s just that you can’t quantify it very well.”
One study, published recently in Science, analyzed data from Hunan Province, in China, at the start of the outbreak. Curfews and lockdown measures, the researchers concluded, had a paradoxical effect: These restrictions reduced the spread within the community, but they raised the risk of infection within households, Kaiyuan Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, reported along with his colleagues.
Three men linked to the Australian Open who are quarantining in Melbourne hotels ahead of the Grand Slam tennis tournament have tested positive for a highly infectious coronavirus variant since arriving in the country, according to the government body overseeing virus-related quarantines in the state of Victoria, which encompasses Melbourne.
The governing body, COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, said in an email statement on Saturday night that the three men were not players and that they had arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 15 “on a dedicated Australian Open charter flight.”
Like everyone else who arrived in Melbourne for the Open, they were expected to have tested negative for the virus within a few days of traveling to Australia, then be screened again soon after arrival. The three men with the variant first found in Britain tested positive on Jan. 15, 17 and 18, the statement said.
“All three cases have been in hard lockdown since they landed in Melbourne,” the statement said.
Because the coronavirus has been largely contained in Australia and all but eliminated in Victoria — which as of Saturday had recorded 17 consecutive days with no new local infections — health officials allowed the Open to proceed only if stringent rules were applied to tennis players and their support staff arriving from overseas.
Everyone involved in the tournament who traveled to Australia on one of the 17 charter flights — players, coaches, support staff members, journalists — was expected to quarantine for 14 days.
But players and coaches who tested negative after arrival — and were not on flights with people who tested positive — are allowed to leave their hotels a few hours a day to train in a gym and to practice on courts for the Open, which is to begin Feb. 8.
A total of 970 people are quarantining in hotels for the tournament, according to Victoria’s Covid quarantine agency. Of those, as many as 72 tennis players are completely confined to their hotel rooms for their first 14 days in Australia because passengers on their chartered flights tested positive after arriving in Melbourne.
As of Saturday, a total of 10 people connected to the tournament had tested positive as of Saturday, including the three with the variant, the Victoria agency said. In addition, a flight attendant aboard a chartered flight from Los Angeles tested positive. Only one player is known to have tested positive — Paula Badosa, 23, of Spain.
The first two cases of the so-called British variant in Australia were reported on Dec. 21. They involved Australians returning from Britain who ended up quarantining in hotels in the state of New South Wales. In Victoria, five cases of the variant were reported between late December and early January.