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Covid-19 News: Live Updates – The New York Times

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Administering the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in London on Wednesday.
Credit…Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

AstraZeneca reiterated on Wednesday that its Covid-19 vaccine was very effective at preventing the disease, based on more recent data than was included when the company announced the interim results of its U.S. clinical trial on Monday.

The company said in a news release that its vaccine was 76 percent effective at preventing Covid-19. That is slightly lower than the number that the company announced earlier this week.

The new results strengthen the scientific case for the embattled vaccine. But they may not repair the damage to AstraZeneca’s credibility after U.S. health officials and independent monitors issued an extraordinary rebuke of the company for not counting some Covid-19 cases when it announced its initial findings this week.

In a news release on Wednesday, the company said complete results from its 32,000-person study showed that its vaccine was 76 percent effective. On Monday, the company had said the vaccine appeared to be 79 percent effective, based on an interim look at 141 Covid-19 cases that had turned up among volunteers before Feb. 17. The latest finding was based on 190 trial participants who had gotten sick with Covid-19.

AstraZeneca said on Wednesday that the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing severe disease and 85 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 in people over age 65.

When it unveiled its interim results on Monday, AstraZeneca ignored dozens of recently confirmed Covid-19 cases that had cropped up in trial volunteers before mid-February.

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In a letter to the company and federal officials, the independent monitoring board that was helping oversee the clinical trial issued an unusual reprimand of AstraZeneca for appearing to cherry-pick data to make its vaccine appear more effective.

“Decisions like this are what erode public trust in the scientific process,” the letter said. The members of the monitoring board wrote that their statistical modeling had found that the vaccine might have a lower efficacy rate — between 69 and 74 percent — if the Covid-19 cases in question were included in the analysis.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases later disclosed the panel’s concerns via a public statement.

It was not clear why the monitoring board’s projection turned out to be lower than the figure in AstraZeneca’s complete results. The latest results could still change because there are still 14 possible Covid-19 cases that AstraZeneca representatives have not yet classified as actual cases.

Until they received the monitoring board’s letter, AstraZeneca executives weren’t aware that the panel expected them to include those cases in the results disclosed in their news release, according to a person familiar with the executives’ thinking.

Vaccine experts said the brushback from federal officials appeared to reflect high levels of distrust between American regulators and AstraZeneca. Some worried that the episode could damage public confidence not only in AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but in all coronavirus vaccines.

“There seems to be a breakdown in relations between the D.S.M.B. and the company, which is probably due to a variety of factors and is sad,” said Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, referring to the independent monitoring board. “This vaccine is so important for global health and the disputes do not promote global health.”

The dust-up over AstraZeneca’s U.S. trial results followed a safety scare in Europe that prompted more than a dozen countries to temporarily suspend use of the vaccine. Regulators in Europe said last week that a review had found the shot to be safe after a small number of people who had recently been inoculated developed blood clots and abnormal bleeding. The U.S. trial did not turn up any signs of such safety problems.

United States › United StatesOn March 24 14-day change
New cases 79,114 Flat
New deaths 1,591 –31%

World › WorldOn March 24 14-day change
New cases 558,444 +20%
New deaths 9,933 +5%

U.S. vaccinations ›

The CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, left, and and his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York.
Credit…Associated Press

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration arranged special access to government-run coronavirus testing for members of his family and other influential people as the pandemic descended on New York last year, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The move to make testing of people closely tied to Mr. Cuomo a priority was carried out by high-ranking state health officials, one of the people said. It mostly happened in March 2020, while the seriousness of the virus was still becoming clear to the broader public and testing was not widely available.

Among those who benefited from the special treatment was the governor’s brother, the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, and his family, who were tested several times in the pandemic’s early phase, this person said. The governor’s mother, Matilda Cuomo, and at least one of his sisters were also able to take advantage of the state-administered tests, the two people said.

Chris Cuomo announced on March 31 last year that he had tested positive for the virus.

That the governor’s administration effectively let well-connected people cut the line to determine whether they had been infected with a dangerous virus that was ravaging the state was reported earlier by The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., and The Washington Post.

The revelation comes as Mr. Cuomo confronts the most significant crisis of his political career, with many of his fellow elected New York Democrats calling for him to resign in the face of multiple sexual harassment allegations and questions about his administration’s handling of the virus-related deaths of nursing home residents.

The State Assembly opened an impeachment investigation this week to examine both those issues, while the state attorney general has started a separate inquiry, and federal agents are investigating the nursing home matter.

The revelation of preferential tests could present an additional challenge. State law prohibits officials from using their position to obtain or seek “privileges or exemptions” for themselves or others.

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, did not explicitly deny that the administration had extended special treatment, while also seeking to dispute the notion.

“In the early days of this pandemic, when there was a heavy emphasis on contact tracing, we were absolutely going above and beyond to get people testing,” he said, adding that the effort included “in some instances going to people’s homes — and door to door in places like New Rochelle — to take samples from those believed to have been exposed to Covid in order to identify cases” and to prevent others from developing the disease.

He added: “Among those we assisted were members of the general public, including legislators, reporters, state workers and their families who feared they had contracted the virus and had the capability to further spread it.”

Registering for a vaccination in Milan this week.
Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

The European Union, where coronavirus vaccinations are moving at a maddeningly slow pace compared with those in United States and Britain, made clear this week that it is willing to flex its muscles to get more doses for its citizens, going so far as to curb exports of vaccine from the bloc.

But the E.U.’s trouble inoculating its population does not result from an inadequate vaccine supply alone.

Bureaucratic inertia, strategic errors, a diffusion of responsibility and logistical problems in booking appointments have all helped seriously undercut vaccination efforts.

Consider the northern Italian town of Cremona, an early victim during the pandemic’s initial explosion in Europe.

Over the weekend, the mayor got a call that the local vaccination center was empty. The region’s booking system had failed to contact and set up appointments with older residents — and more than 500 doses of vaccine were at risk of going to waste.

“There was staff, there were also vaccines, but there were no people,” said the mayor, Gianluca Galimberti.

Similar scenarios are playing out throughout the country, as the authorities struggle to get vaccines to older and vulnerable Italians who most need them.

But the problems getting people vaccinated are hardly limited to Italy.

The temporary suspension last week by multiple countries of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one that the European Union has bet on, was just one indication of how Europe’s rollouts have been plagued by an overabundance of caution, bad deals and flouted obligations by pharmaceutical companies.

The situation remains so dire that the bloc unveiled emergency restrictions to curb exports of Covid-19 vaccines for six weeks. And the Italian government, acting on a request from the European Commission, the E.U. executive arm, sent the police to inspect 29 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in a facility outside Rome, amid suspicions of possible exports out of the bloc.

Italy is paying an especially heavy price for the vaccination campaign problems.

A full year after the country became the first Western nation to confront the virus, it now has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of daily deaths from Covid-19 among Europe’s major powers.

And the missteps have especially affected Italy’s most vulnerable population: the elderly. Fewer than one in five people over 80 have received both doses of a vaccine, and less than 5 percent of septuagenarians have received their first shot.

When it comes to distributing vaccines, Italy is on par with France and Germany and a little behind Spain, but its difficulties in vaccinating older citizens are far more consequential, given that it is the country with the oldest population in Europe.

“Every time the phone rings, I hope it’s them,” said Ester Bucco, a 84-year-old resident of the Lombardy region, who registered two months ago to get vaccinated.

She has yet to get an appointment.

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The Olympic torch relay was led by members of the Japan women’s national soccer team that won the World Cup in 2011.
Credit…Pool photo by Philip Fong

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — When Bruna Noguchi signed up to be a torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics a year and a half ago, she never dreamed it could be a controversial decision.

But as the relay kicked off on Thursday morning in Fukushima Prefecture, the ceremony and those participating in it were at the center of a national debate, with many questioning whether the Games should go on in spite of the virus, the ballooning costs and other growing challenges.

While more than three dozen people, including about 20 celebrities, have withdrawn from the relay, Ms. Noguchi, 22, has decided to participate. She is one of 10,000 people who will carry the torch over the next four months, from Fukushima to Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the north and on to the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

“I can understand the feelings of the people who have decided to withdraw from the relay,” Ms. Noguchi said in a recent interview. “But I’m not worried.”

The Japanese authorities had envisioned the start of the torch relay as a triumphant moment, and their choice of Fukushima as the launching point was heavily symbolic. Japan is calling these Games the “Recovery Olympics,” highlighting the country’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that ravaged Fukushima and other parts of northeastern Japan, as well as the world’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo organizing committee, said that it was “very meaningful” that the relay would start in Fukushima and that she wished for “the entire world to take a look at the reconstruction done in East Japan.”

But the celebration on Thursday was subdued, and the relay was being carried out under a number of restrictions. Traditional Japanese drummers and a hula dance group opened the ceremony, performing before a group of around 150 attendees, who sat at socially distanced intervals and applauded politely.

The ceremony and the first section of the relay were closed to the public. Routes will not be announced until 30 minutes before the start time, and spectators can attend the relay only in their home prefectures.

No cheering or shouting is allowed, and fans must offer “support with applause or using distributed goods.” The relay will be live-streamed by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.

Despite the precautions, some people in Fukushima said they were still worried. Shuhei Ohno, 34, a chef in Koriyama, said he feared that the torch relay might “raise the infection risk” nationwide.

“The vaccine hasn’t spread widely enough in Japan yet, so how can there already be plans to host the Olympics?” he said.

Still, the organizers are pressing ahead. Over the next 121 days, Ms. Noguchi and her fellow torchbearers will trot across Japan’s 47 prefectures, including islands off the coast of Tokyo, before completing the torch’s journey on July 23, the day of the opening ceremony.

Most of United’s new flights will connect cities in the Midwest to tourist destinations.
Credit…Sebastian Hidalgo for The New York Times

United Airlines plans to add more than two dozen new flights starting Memorial Day weekend, the latest sign that demand for leisure travel is picking up as the national vaccination rate moves higher.

Most of the new flights will connect cities in the Midwest to tourist destinations, such as Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; Portland, Maine; Savannah, Ga.; and Pensacola, Fla. United also said it planned to offer more flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America in May than it did during the same month in 2019.

The airline has seen ticket sales rise in recent weeks, according to Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning and scheduling. Customers are booking tickets further out, too, he said, suggesting growing confidence in travel.

“Over the past 12 months, this is the first time we are really feeling more bullish,” Mr. Gupta said.

Airports have been consistently busier in recent weeks than at any point since the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a standstill a year ago. Well over one million people were screened at airport security checkpoints each day over the past two weeks, according to the Transportation Security Administration, although the number of screenings is down more than 40 percent compared with the same period in 2019.

Most of the new United flights will be offered between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend aboard the airline’s regional jets, which have 50 seats. The airline said it would also add new flights between Houston and Kalispell, Mont.; Washington and Bozeman, Mont.; Chicago and Nantucket, Mass.; and Orange County, Calif., and Honolulu.

All told, United said it planned to operate about 58 percent as many domestic flights this May as it did in May 2019 and 46 percent as many international flights. Most of the demand for international travel has been focused on warm beach destinations that have less-stringent travel restrictions.

“That is one of the strongest demand regions in the world right now,” Mr. Gupta said. “A lot of the leisure traffic has sort of shifted to those places and it’s actually seen a boom in bookings.”

Delta Air Lines issued a similar update last week, announcing more than 20 nonstop summer flights to mountain, beach and vacation destinations. Both airlines have said in recent weeks that they have made substantial progress toward reducing how much money they are losing every day.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have recovered, powered largely by the public’s enthusiasm about the vaccine rollout.
Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

Britain’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines has revived the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now, Mr. Johnson’s allies hope the stark disparity between Britain’s performance and the European Union’s will do something perhaps even more challenging: vindicate their larger Brexit project.

Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators are casting Britain’s vaccine deployment, which ranks among the fastest in the world, as an example of risk-taking and entrepreneurial pluck that comes from not being shackled to the collective decision-making of the 27 member states of the European Union.

With vaccination rates that are a fraction of Britain’s, threats of export bans on vaccines produced on the continent and churlish statements about British-made vaccines by leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France, the European Union has seemingly done all it can to make it look like Britain picked the right time to leave.

“Boris Johnson is going to have a vaccine dividend, and that will give him a whole new narrative for the summer and beyond,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent.

It’s a narrative that seeks to deflect attention from the costs of Brexit since Britain severed itself from the European Union in January — damaging disruptions to cross-channel trade and businesses choking on reams of red tape, among other headaches. And it conveniently ignores the harrowing experience many Britons had with the virus before the first vaccine “jabs” arrived last December.

Until then, Mr. Johnson’s government was known mainly for its dilatory and erratic response to the pandemic — tardy lockdowns, frequent policy reversals, muddled public messaging and a hapless test-and-trace system — all of which contributed to Britain having the highest death toll in Europe.

Now, though, the prime minister’s approval ratings have recovered, powered largely by the public’s enthusiasm about the vaccine rollout. In a new survey, 67 percent of respondents said they thought Britain had performed better on vaccinations than E.U. countries. A slight plurality — 40 percent — said they thought Brexit had helped improve Britain’s handling of the pandemic, while 14 percent said it had made it worse, and 38 percent thought it had made no difference.

Mr. Johnson’s vaccine bounce, analysts point out, could be fleeting if a new variant emerges or if the economy does not recover swiftly.

But Mr. Goodwin said one consequence of the vaccine success is that there are few signs of significant numbers of people rethinking the wisdom of Brexit or suffering the acute regret — or as he called it, “Bregret” — that some expected.

A drive-through vaccination site in Cleveland, Miss.
Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

When Bobby Wayne, 64, called a Mississippi state hotline this week to find out where he could get the Covid-19 vaccine, he says, an operator gave him incorrect — and unnerving — information.

“This is the way she put it to me: They had no documentation that the vaccine was effective,” Mr. Wayne recalled. “And then she asked me did I still want to take it.”

When he replied yes, the operator told him that there were no appointments available and that he should call again the next morning, he said.

The Mississippi State Department of Health chalked the misinformation up to confusion, saying it was the result of “miscommunication” over a misleading script given to the hotline operators.

The script was referring to pregnant women, women who are lactating and people with compromised immune systems. It asked: “Do you still want to be vaccinated with an understanding there are currently no available data on the safety or effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines, including Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, in pregnant people, lactating people or immunocompromised people?”

Most experts agree that the risks to pregnant women from Covid-19 are far greater than any theoretical harm from the vaccines. Doctors have also said they believe that the vaccines are safe for people with autoimmune conditions.

Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said that the wording in the script could be confusing “when read out of context.”

“We are replacing this confusing and misleading language,” she said in a statement.

However, Ms. Sharlot said the operators had never been told that there was no documented proof that the Moderna vaccine or any other vaccine authorized for use by the Food and Drug Administration worked.

“Just the opposite is true,” she said. “Both Moderna and Pfizer have high efficacy rates.”

Mr. Wayne’s daughter, Elizabeth Wayne, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, complained on Twitter about her father’s conversation with the hotline operator, equating it with “violence.”

“It’s dangerous,” Dr. Wayne said in an interview. “There is a therapy available. There is a way to treat something, and you’re making it difficult for them to have access to that treatment so it’s increasing the likelihood they may become sick.”

The Mississippi Free Press reported the story after Dr. Wayne posted about her father’s experience on Twitter.

Dr. Wayne said she was pleased that the health department appeared to take her concerns, and her father’s, seriously.

“I think it was a really good example of the State Health Department trying to reach out because they actually want to restore faith” in the vaccine, she said.

Mr. Wayne said he got his shot on Wednesday morning.

“I feel a whole lot better,” he said.

Oliver Reese, the director of the Berliner Ensemble theater, greeted visitors last weekend before a performance at which every second seat was left empty.
Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times

BERLIN — On a snowy, gray morning last Friday, as a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany was taking hold, Anna Schoras, 30, lined up outside a pop-up testing site inside a repurposed art gallery in Berlin.

Cultural life in the German capital has largely shut down because of the virus, but if Schoras’s test came back negative, she would be allowed to attend the first live stage production in the city in about five months, scheduled for that evening.

“I’m just really looking forward to getting out of the house and to consuming live culture,” she said, adding that before the pandemic, she would go to the theater or the opera about twice a month.

Earlier that week, Ms. Schoras had been among the lucky few to secure one of 350 tickets to the show at the venerated Berliner Ensemble theater. They sold out in four minutes.

The performance was part of a pilot project, coordinated by the city of Berlin, that allows its landmark cultural venues to put on a show in front of a live audience — as long as the audience members wear masks, maintain social distancing and present a negative result from a rapid test taken no longer than 12 hours before curtain. The test, which is included in the price of the ticket, must be administered by medically trained workers at one of five approved centers.

Along with two nights at the Berliner Ensemble, live performances are being held at two of the city’s opera houses, the Philharmonie and Konzerthaus, and at the Volksbühne theater. Holzmarkt, a nightclub, will also host a sit-down concert. The short run of shows is intended to test whether organizers can put on cultural events safely, even as infection numbers soar.

Germany’s muddled national response to the virus has given way to local initiatives to keep life going, including a program to keep shopping and outdoor dining open for tested customers in some cities. As well as an epidemiological experiment, the Berlin initiative is a signal from a city that prides itself on its vibrant arts scene that — despite being shut down since October — culture still matters.

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