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Africa Endures ‘Worst Pandemic Week Ever’

Brian Otieno for The New York Times

Africa has just had its “worst pandemic week ever,” the World Health Organization said on Thursday. The continent is short of vaccines, and the coronavirus is sickening its young people and overwhelming its already fragile health care systems.

More than 251,000 new cases were reported in Africa in the week ending July 4, a 20 percent increase from the previous week, according to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the W.H.O. regional director for Africa.

For several weeks now, the continent has been experiencing a brutal wave of infections driven by the more contagious Delta variant, which is increasing hospitalization and fatalities, filling intensive-care beds, depleting oxygen supplies and pushing governments to institute new lockdown measures.

Sixteen African countries are reporting a resurgence in infections, with Malawi and Senegal added to the list this week. New case counts are doubling every 18 days, Dr. Moeti said, and have been rising for seven straight weeks.

“A few weeks ago, we projected this milestone would be reached shortly, and it brings me no joy to be right,” Dr. Moeti said at a news conference on Thursday. “For Africa, the worst is yet to come,” she warned, adding, “The end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away.”

A third wave of the pandemic is ripping through countries mainly in southern and eastern Africa, and one country in North Africa — Tunisia — is experiencing its fourth wave.

Namibia, a nation of just over 2.5 million people, has been recording more than 1,000 new cases a day, and several senior government officials have succumbed to the virus. A spike in cases in Zambia has pushed the government to restrict social gatherings and close schools.

In Uganda, which was praised for its initial virus response, hospitals have been stretched thin, with some patients racking up huge medical bills. Rwanda restricted movement in its capital late last month, and Kenya instituted partial lockdowns and extended curfew hours in over a dozen counties where the Delta variant was contributing to surges.

Many African countries continue to face challenges in detecting and sequencing virus variants, Dr. Moeti said. Testing and tracing remain limited, as well: In a continent of 1.3 billion people, just over 54 million virus tests have been conducted, according to Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa C.D.C.

But the biggest challenge has been vaccination. With just over 53 million doses administered, only about 1 percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

African officials have accused wealthy nations of hoarding vaccine doses while millions of Africans remain vulnerable. Most African countries are dependent on the Covax vaccine-sharing initiative, which has been severely hampered by the Indian government’s decision in April to hold back doses manufactured there for domestic use and restrict exports.

As cases surge in Africa, some wealthy nations have begun donating vaccine doses to nations on the continent. And as more supplies come in, health officials are urging African countries to prepare to receive and administer the doses quickly.

“Governments and partners can do this,” Dr. Moeti said, “by planning to expand vaccination sites, improving cold chain capacities beyond capital cities, sensitizing communities to boost vaccine confidence and demand, and ensuring operational funding is ready to go when it is needed.”

Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Thursday that they were developing a version of the coronavirus vaccine that targets Delta, a highly contagious variant that has spread to nearly 100 countries. The companies expect to begin clinical trials of the vaccine in August.

Pfizer and BioNTech also reported promising results from studies of people who received a third dose of the original vaccine. A booster given six months after the second dose of the vaccine increases the potency of antibodies against the original virus and the Beta variant by five- to tenfold, the companies said.

Vaccine efficacy may decline six months after immunization, the companies said in a news release, and booster doses may be needed to fend off virus variants.

But the companies’ assertions contradict other research, and several experts pushed back against the claim that boosters would be needed.

“There’s really no indication for a third booster or a third dose of an mRNA vaccine, given the variants that we have circulating at this time,” said Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York. “In fact, many of us question whether you will ever need boosters.”

Federal agencies also sounded a dubious note on Thursday night. Generally, Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time, the F.D.A. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a joint statement.

Olympic torchbearers waited Friday in Tokyo for the start of a ceremony welcoming the torch’s arrival in the city. 
Naoki Ogura/Reuters

A ceremony marking the Olympic torch’s arrival in Tokyo was held in a nearly empty park on Friday, a day after the city declared a new state of emergency over a rise in Covid-19 cases and organizers of the Summer Games said they would bar spectators from most events.

Tokyo’s rising numbers are part of a surge across the Asia Pacific region, where countries that once led the world in containing the virus are grappling with new variants and a lack of vaccines.

New outbreaks are bringing back restrictions unseen for months, in places where the authorities once kept transmission relatively low — relying heavily on mask wearing, contact tracing and social distancing — but have been unable to vaccinate at a pace that would significantly tamp down infections.

Even the region’s richest countries have made little progress in their vaccination drives. Less than a third of the populations of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, for instance, have gotten even one dose of a coronavirus shot, according to a New York Times tracker. And in several middle-income countries whose access to vaccines has been hindered by supply constraints or other factors, the one-dose figure is either in single digits or low double digits.

As the more contagious Delta variant ripples through the region, many governments are reimposing harsh restrictions on movement and socializing that many had considered a relic of the pandemic’s early, anxious months.

Sydney, Australia’s largest city, reported 38 cases on Thursday, its highest daily caseload yet. The city is under a stay-at-home lockdown until July 17, and the authorities warned on Friday, as they tightened restrictions further, that it could be extended.

In Southeast Asia, which saw one of its deadliest days of the pandemic on Thursday, new cases and restrictions are rising in tandem in several countries. In Myanmar, where health workers have been striking to protest a military coup, cases are rising sharply, and the military said on Friday that it would close schools nationwide for two weeks.

In Vietnam on Friday, the government began restricting movement in Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital. And in Thailand, where the government announced a new round of lockdown measures, a terminal at Bangkok’s main international airport was being converted into a field hospital.

People in several Malaysian cities are suffering amid strict lockdowns, as the country reports Southeast Asia’s highest per capita caseload, about 22 per 100,000, according to a New York Times database. Neighboring Indonesia has seen daily records of both cases and deaths this month, and doctors there who received the Sinovac shot have been falling ill or dying. The Indonesian capital, Jakarta, added about 13,000 new cases on Thursday alone, as health officials blamed the surge on the Delta variant.

In East Asia, South Korea reported 1,316 new cases on Friday, its highest daily tally of the pandemic. The government has said it would raise restrictions to the highest level in Seoul, the capital, and some neighboring regions starting on Monday. Schools will be closed, bars and nightclubs will be shut, and public meetings will restricted to two people after 6 p.m.

And in Tokyo, a fourth state of emergency will also take effect on Monday, less than two weeks before the start of the Olympics. Restaurants, department stores and other businesses will be asked to close early, and people will be asked not to gather in public to watch the Games.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan has said that if vaccinations pick up and the strain on hospitals eases, the government will consider lifting the emergency before Aug. 22, when it is set to expire. Yet his own Covid-19 adviser has warned that the Olympics — which most Japanese people had hoped would be canceled — could prompt new infections. At least four members of Olympic teams have already tested positive.

More than 4,400 volunteers attended an experimental concert in Paris in May to assess health risks associated with large-scale indoor gatherings. 
Christian Hartmann/Reuters

If everyone in attendance wears a mask, keeps their hands clean and has recently tested negative for the coronavirus, large concerts can be held safely indoors without requiring social distancing, researchers in Paris said on Thursday, based on an experiment they ran in May.

The Paris Public Hospitals, which led the experiment, gathered 6,678 volunteers and divided them randomly into two groups: about two-thirds of the volunteers attended a special concert conducted for the experiment at the Accor Arena, and the rest did not. Half of the volunteers had received at least one vaccine dose.

All of the volunteers were tested a week later, and the results showed no significant difference between the two groups. About 0.2 percent of the concertgoers’ tests came back positive, nearly the same positivity rate as the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris, over the two weeks preceding the event.

The researchers said that analysis of saliva samples taken at the concert showed afterward that five of the eight concertgoers who eventually tested positive already had the virus when they arrived at the arena.

The results suggest that “participating in a large indoor live concert with no physical distancing” was “not associated with an increased risk of Covid infection,” the Paris Public Hospitals said in a statement.

The results were encouraging for French people who are starting to enjoy the complete reopening of public gathering places in their country, after three lengthy lockdowns over the course of the pandemic and a curfew that was imposed in October. Nightclubs, the last sector still subject to restrictions in France, are expected to reopen on Friday after being closed for 15 months.

But the concert experiment followed strict sanitary protocols and took other measures that might not be maintained in commercial public settings, including screening the audience and keeping the bars and smoking rooms at the venue closed.

The volunteer attendees were all 18 to 45 and had declared that they had no Covid symptoms, no other significant health conditions and no recent contact with an infected person. Compliance with the facial mask requirement was tracked and evaluated by a continuous video-capture artificial intelligence system.

Experimental concerts previously conducted in Barcelona, Spain, in March and Liverpool, England, in May yielded similar conclusions that indoor events held with strict safety measures would not lead to a significant rise in infections.

The coronavirus situation in France remains worrisome. Daily new case reports have risen significantly over the past week in 11 regions of the country, including Île-de-France, and the more contagious Delta variant accounted for more than 40 percent of the new cases. Vaccination efforts have begun to stall with just 37.6 percent of the total population fully protected, and the government, fearing a new wave of infections before the end of the summer, is mounting a push to speed them up again.

Fans of England celebrated the team’s victory after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship semi-final match at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.
Andy Rain/Getty Images

As countless fans across England gathered on Wednesday to watch their team defeat Denmark in the European Championship semifinal, coronavirus cases have spiked across the nation and researchers have hinted at a possible link between the sudden rise and gatherings for games that have mostly ignored social distancing measures.

Research released on Thursday showed that men in England were currently 30 percent more likely to be infected with the coronavirus than women — a finding that could dampen the excitement of the legions of mostly male fans hoping to celebrate a victory in the European Championship soccer final on Sunday.

Steven Riley, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London who was one of the report’s authors, said the higher rates of infections among men were probably explained by changes in social behaviors like watching soccer.

The European Championship soccer tournament started on June 11 and ends on Sunday, and crowds have been gathering in London and across Britain to watch the matches in pubs, restaurants and on outdoor screens.

Researchers at Imperial College London also found that from June 24 to July 5, the number of coronavirus cases had quadrupled across England and had risen eightfold in London.

The World Health Organization warned last week that the games, held in cities across Europe, had driven a rise in coronavirus cases. The two semifinals this week were played at Wembley Stadium in London — including England’s hard-fought win against Denmark on Wednesday night — as will the final on Sunday. Attendance at each game has been about 60,000 people.

Germany’s Interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has called the decision by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, to allow large crowds in stadiums “utterly irresponsible.” Yet the British authorities have gone ahead, filling Wembley at two-third capacity.

Although those in attendance at Wembley were required to provide proof of a full coronavirus vaccination or a negative test result taken 48 hours before the game, few people wore masks in the outdoor stadium or its inner concourses, and trains were packed tightly before and after the game.

Coronavirus infections have quadrupled in England in recent weeks, according to the study from Imperial College London, which was published on the government’s website. On Wednesday, Britain reported more than 32,50 new cases and 33 deaths.

England’s last pandemic restrictions are set to be lifted by July 19, even as public health experts said the nation could face 50,000 new daily infections later this month.

In a letter published in The Lancet on Wednesday, 122 scientists and doctors accused the British government of conducting a “dangerous and unethical experiment” by letting the virus circulate widely, while half of the population has yet to be fully vaccinated.

The authorities also said on Thursday that fully vaccinated travelers returning to England’s from countries deemed to be a mid-level risk — those on the “amber” list on its stoplight-code system — would no longer have to quarantine.

The move could prompt many in Britain to book vacations in European destinations like France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, although some countries have in return imposed new restrictions on travelers arriving from Britain.

Harsh Vardhan, Indian Health Minister, and his wife Nutan Goel, getting a vaccine, in New Delhi, India, in March.
Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

As criticism mounts about the Indian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the health minister, Harsh Vardhan, has stepped down as part of a major cabinet reshuffle.

The overhaul of government positions was carried out as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government come under increasing fire for their handling of the crisis. Critics have accused the authorities of failing to adequately prepare for a second wave of the virus after pronouncing the end of the pandemic this year — just before a devastating new outbreak unfolded, which saw untold numbers of people in a desperate search for scarce hospital beds, medical oxygen and other lifesaving help.

Arati Jerath, a political analyst and writer, said, “Clearly there is realization that the pandemic was mismanaged, that there is a great deal of unhappiness.”

“Mr. Modi was the face of the fight against Covid, so I think he has made Harsh Vardhan the scapegoat,” she added.

Mansukh Mandaviya, minister of state for chemicals and fertilizers, was appointed to take Dr. Vardhan’s place during what the government has described as a critical moment to stave off a third wave.

The government has also been criticized for continuing shortages of Covid-19 shots, despite the country’s being home to the world’s largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, which is producing tens of millions of AstraZeneca doses per month.

Only 4.9 percent of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated, and health officials are warning that the pace of immunization could be too slow to prevent another major outbreak.

In early March, Dr. Vardhan, a member of Parliament and an ear, nose and throat specialist, said India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. Three weeks later, India halted vaccine exports as case numbers surged.

In the latest reshuffle, Mr. Modi appointed nearly three dozen ministers — some of whom were promoted to cabinet-level posts — while a dozen ministers were dropped, including two seen by members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as having badly controlled the messaging around the government’s pandemic response.

Those two ministers were Prakash Javadekar, who oversaw information and broadcasting, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister tasked with enforcing an unpopular new law that makes media companies, including social media platforms, more liable for content. The law is being challenged in several courts around India.

A special facility for Covid-19 patients last month in Arequipa, Peru.
Diego Ramos/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Viruses evolve. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is no exception. So the emergence of variants is no surprise, and not every new genetic mutation poses a serious threat.

But in recent weeks, a growing drumbeat of news coverage has started to raise alarm about Lambda, a variant first detected late last year in Peru. The variant, initially known as C. 37, has spread rapidly through parts of South America. On June 14, the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of interest,” meaning, essentially, that experts suspect it could be more dangerous than the original strain.

Only a handful of studies have looked at Lambda so far. Here’s what we know:

  • It has spread fast. It has been detected in at least 29 countries and has become especially prevalent in Peru, Chile and other parts of South America.

  • It has eight notable mutations, some of which are present in other variants and might make the virus more infectious or help it evade the body’s immune response.

  • Preliminary laboratory studies suggest that the variant may be more transmissible and that the body’s antibodies may be less effective against it. But vaccine-induced antibodies are still able to neutralize the virus, which suggests that vaccines should still provide protection against it.

Although more real-world data is needed, there is not yet any evidence that Lambda poses more risk than other circulating variants, like Delta. “I don’t think there’s any more reason to be concerned than before we knew about this variant,” said Nathaniel Landau, a microbiologist at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “There’s no reason to think that this is now something worse than Delta.”

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