Coronavirus mutations identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa may be provoking alarm, but infectious-disease experts are optimistic the new variants are still vulnerable to the powerful hammer of newly authorized vaccines. Even if the virus were to mutate further, the experts say, the vaccines could be rapidly reprogrammed to remain effective against new variants.

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ICU Dr. German Osorio takes a selfie as he gets his COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Posta Central Hospital in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday, on the same day the first shipment of vaccines arrived from Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech. The vaccine is believed to be effective against a new variant of the virus detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Esteban Felix/Associated Press

Such a tweaking of the vaccines could be done “in minutes,” said Drew Weissman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and one of the inventors of the messenger RNA technology that powers both vaccines.

“It’s very easy,” Weissman added.

This reassurance comes at a jittery moment, when the first two approved vaccines are offering hope that the beginning of the end of this global health emergency is at hand, even as the virus offers disquieting reminders that it is not static.

Authorities in the United Kingdom and South Africa have announced that variants of the coronavirus are spreading in their countries at alarming rates. Some scientists have said it could already be circulating in the United States, though it has not been detected here. The new variants carry mutations detected through genomic sequencing. A paper published Wednesday by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but not yet peer-reviewed, said that modeling indicates that the variant known as B.1.1.7 is 56 percent more transmissible.

Actually rolling out a recalibrated vaccine would take some time, Weissman acknowledged, perhaps a couple of months, due to manufacturing and regulatory requirements. But he said he doubts the Food and Drug Administration would require the same extensive randomized trials that showed the safety and efficacy of the vaccines developed this year by the pharmaceutical company Moderna and the partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Wednesday that the variant identified in South Africa had turned up in two people in England and is even more transmissible than the mutation-laden variant already circulating at alarming rates in his country. Hancock described the South African variant as having “mutated further” than the United Kingdom variant.

Such dire warnings should not incite panic, scientists say, noting that all viruses mutate and this one doesn’t mutate very quickly. There is zero evidence these mutations have made the virus deadlier, they said. Nor is there any reason to think they will. It is just as likely that mutations would make the virus less deadly, or “pathogenic.”

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Despite pandemic, people connect over U.S.-Canada, U.S.-Mexico borders at holiday

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the United States, Canada and Mexico agreed in March to close their shared borders to nonessential travel.

Nine months later, it’s Christmas. Families across the world are disconnected, but perhaps none more than those trapped on opposite sides of an international border. Some legally can’t cross, and others can’t afford to endure quarantines if they do.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, most years bring festive Las Posadas celebrations; the centuries-old tradition practiced in Mexico reenacts through song Mary and Joseph’s search for refuge in Bethlehem.

Not this year. In addition to virus-related restrictions, people face another barrier: President Donald Trump’s border wall that stretches hundreds of miles and is still under construction.

A little girl in Arizona recently stuck her arm through giant steel slats of the border wall, wrangling a baby doll as she looked to the sky. A little boy reached through the wall for a hug, looking tired and serious.

Canadians Stephanie Frizzell, far right, and her daughter, Shelby Dubois offer a big air hug with their American relatives, Christian Gervais, far left, Sherie Frizzell, second from left, and Caitlin Davis, third from left, during a visit at the U.S.-Canadian border of Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Contrast that with the scenes 2,500 miles away on the U.S.-Canada border.

A short strip of yellow police tape is the only thing dividing Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec.

On a recent day, the mood outside the majestic, Victorian-style library where people from both countries come to congregate was festive and lighthearted.

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Raise your mittens: In Maine and elsewhere outdoor learning continues into winter

Cindy Soule’s fourth-graders in Portland have studied pollination in a community garden. They solved an erosion problem that was damaging trees. They learned about bear scat.

Then came a fresh layer of snow and temperatures that hovered around freezing — but her students were unfazed.

Bundled up and masked, they scooted outside with their belongings in buckets. They collected their pencils and clipboards, plopped the buckets upside down in the snow, took a seat and went to work.

The lesson? Snow, of course, and how snowflakes are formed.

Fourth grader Falis Asair, right, makes notes about snowflakes during an outdoor class at the Gerald Talbot School, in Portland. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Schools nationwide scrambled to get students outdoors during the pandemic to keep them safe and stop the spread of COVID-19. Now, with temperatures plummeting, a smaller number of schools — even in some of the nation’s most frigid climes — plan to keep it going all winter long, with students trading desks in warm classrooms for tree stumps or buckets.

“It’s the healthiest, safest place for us to be right now. Anything that we can do to get kids outdoors for longer periods of time is vital. This is where we need to be right now,” said Anne Stires, an outdoor learning consultant and advocate in Maine.

In New Hampshire, fourth and fifth graders are still outside at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard after building an outdoor classroom by clearing a patch of woods and adding a fire pit, rock seating and hammocks.

“They’re begging me to go out,” said teacher Amanda Bridges.

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California 1st state to record 2 million coronavirus cases

LOS ANGELES — California became the first state to record 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases, reaching the milestone on Christmas Eve as close to the entire state was under a strict stay-at-home order and hospitals were flooded with the largest crush of cases since the pandemic began.

A tally by Johns Hopkins University showed the nation’s most populated state has recorded 2,010,157 infections since January. More than 23,000 people have died from the virus.

California’s infection rate — in terms of the number of cases per 100,000 people — is lower than the U.S. average but its nearly 40 million residents mean the outbreak outpaces other states in sheer numbers.

Nurses staff a COVID-19 triage tent at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Associated Press/Jae C. Hong

The grim milestone comes as a COVID-19 crisis that health officials say stems from Thanksgiving gatherings strains the state’s medical system. More than 18,000 people are hospitalized and many of the state’s intensive care units are filled.

The state has seen its number of cases climb exponentially in recent weeks, fueled largely by people who ignored warnings and held traditional Thanksgiving gatherings, health officials say. Soaring rates of hospitalizations and deaths have overwhelmed intensive care units and prompted hospitals to put emergency room patients in tents and treat others in offices and auditoriums.

Nearly the entire state is under a stay-home order that imposed an overnight curfew, shuttered many businesses and restricted most retail to 20% capacity. Restaurants may only serve takeout.

Pleas to avoid social gatherings for the Christmas and New Year’s rang with special desperation in Southern California. Los Angeles County is leading the surge, accounting for one-third of the state’s COVID-19 cases and nearly 40% of deaths.

“We know that this emergency is our darkest day, maybe the darkest day in our city’s history,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday, when the county reported its highest death toll and hospitalizations in a single day since the pandemic began — 145 deaths and more than 6,000 people in hospitals.

More than 9,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the county.

If LA County continues to see the same growth in COVID-19 infections in the next two weeks, hospitals may find themselves having to ration care because of a lack of medical staff, Garcetti said.

“That means the doctors will be forced to determine who lives and who dies,” he said.

Medical workers are discouraged and outraged over scenes of crowded outdoor malls, packed parking lots, and parents and children walking around without masks, county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

Santa Clara County near San Francisco was down to 35 ICU beds, putting hospitals dangerously close to rationing care, said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, the county’s director of health care preparedness.

“We are talking about people in gurneys without a bed to go to. We are talking about people not getting hospital care; we are talking about rationing what scarce resources our exhausted health system has left to those who would benefit the most,” he said.

Overall, California on Wednesday recorded the second-highest number of deaths, at 361. The number of coronavirus patients in intensive care units nearly doubled in just three weeks, to 3,827 cases, while the state’s ICU capacity fell to 1.1%, down from 2.5% just two days ago. The number of hospitalizations jumped to 18,828 patients, more than double since Dec. 1, with 605 new patients in one day.

Thousands of truckers still trapped in UK gridlock, unable to get home for Christmas

DOVER, England  — Trucks inched slowly past checkpoints at the English port of Dover and headed across the Channel on Thursday to the French port of Calais after France partially reopened its borders with Britain following a scare over a rapidly spreading new virus variant.

Still, thousands of truck drivers and travelers remained trapped in the mass gridlock at the Dover port on Christmas Eve, held up by slow delivery of the coronavirus tests now demanded by France. One by one, trucks passed toward ferries and trains that link Britain with France, as authorities checked that drivers had the negative virus tests required to cross.

On the French side, powerful winds buffeted the coast before dawn and the vast Calais port — which normally takes in up to 4,000 trucks a day — remained quieter than usual.

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Vehicles queue to move into the departures boarding area as COVID-19 tests are carried out at the Port of Dover as thousands are wait to resume their journey across The Channel after the borders with France reopened on Christmas Eve. Aaron Chown/PA via Associated Press

A Dover port spokeswoman said it “received” fewer than 100 freight vehicles “due to restrictions on testing,” and officials warned the backlog could take days to clear. One U.K. road haulage expert estimated there could be 8,000 to 10,000 trucks caught up in the chaos near Dover but a government minister said it involved some 4,000 trucks.

French Ambassador Catherine Colonna said two dozen French firefighters have been sent to Dover, bringing 10,000 coronavirus tests for drivers desperate to get home for Christmas. British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said British and French authorities have agreed to keep the border between the countries open throughout Christmas to help truck drivers and travelers get home.

Dozens of countries around the world began barring people from Britain last weekend after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said large areas of southern England had to be placed under harsh restrictions to curb a new, more contagious version of the virus whipping around London and England’s southeast.

France’s move raised the most concern, since France is a major conduit for trade and travel between Britain and the continent. The U.K. relies heavily on cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food at this time of year, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

The announcement of the coronavirus variant added to anxieties at a time when Europe has been walloped by soaring new virus infections and deaths. Europe as a whole has recorded over 500,000 virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree is probably an undercount due to missed cases and other factors.

Britain has seen soaring infection rates in recent weeks, with many hospitals nearing their capacities. On Wednesday, the country reported another 744 deaths and a record 39,237 confirmed new cases. Christmas gatherings and festive shopping were cancelled for millions at the last minute in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

London now has the highest rate of people testing positive in the country, with an estimated 2.1% of people testing positive for COVID-19, according to figures published Thursday by the Office for National Statistics.

France defended its handling of the border situation after the EU’s transport commissioner issued unusually strong public criticism.

Commissioner Adina Valean, of Romania, tweeted: “I deplore that France went against our recommendations and brought us back to the situation we were in in March when the supply chains were interrupted.”

France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, tweeted back that France had “exactly followed the EU recommendation” and is now “more open than other European countries” to arrivals from Britain.

Some European countries relaxed their travel limits on Britain on Wednesday, though many remain. China on Thursday became the latest nation to suspend flights to and from the U.K.

New coronavirus mutation appears to emerge in Nigeria

NAIROBI, Kenya  — Another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, Africa’s top public health official said Thursday, but he added that further investigation was needed.

The discovery could add to new alarm in the pandemic after similar variants were announced in Britain and South Africa, leading to the swift return of international travel restrictions and other measures just as the world enters a major holiday season.

“It’s a separate lineage from the UK and South Africa,” the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters. He said the Nigeria CDC and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in that country — Africa’s most populous — will be analyzing more samples.

A hair stylist takes the temperature of a customer inside a salon in Lagos, Nigeria in September. Associated Press/Sunday Alamba

“Give us some time … it’s still very early,” he said.

The alert about the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and South Africa’s alert late last week were enough to prompt an emergency meeting of the Africa CDC this week.

The variant was found in two patient samples collected on Aug. 3 and on Oct. 9 in Nigeria’s Osun state, according to a working research paper seen by The Associated Press.

Unlike the variant seen in the UK, “we haven’t observed such rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and do not have evidence to indicate that the P681H variant is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria. However, the relative difference in scale of genomic surveillance in Nigeria vs the U.K. may imply a reduced power to detect such changes,” the paper says.

The news comes as infections surge again in parts of the African continent.

The new variant in South Africa is now the predominant one there, Nkengasong said, as confirmed infections in the country approach 1 million. While the variant transmits quickly and viral loads are higher, it is not yet clear whether it leads to a more severe disease, he said.

“We believe this mutation will not have an effect” on the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to the continent, he said of the South Africa variant.

French President Macron to leave isolation

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron no longer has virus symptoms and is leaving isolation after a week with COVID-19, but is urging the French public to limit contacts and remain vigilant to keep infections under control during the Christmas holiday season.

Macron’s office said in a statement on Thursday that he is finishing a week of isolation at a presidential retreat in Versailles based on French health protocols, which recommend seven days of confinement following a positive virus test.

French authorities lifted virus restrictions for the holidays but infections remain high, and some doctors are urging new lockdown measures.

As families prepare to gather for traditional Christmas Eve dinners Thursday, infectious disease specialist Karine Lacombe warned that the meal “is one of the most risky situations for transmitting the virus.”

But she said on France-Info radio that after an emotionally trying year, “It’s important to take into account the need to have some conviviality, it’s a balance between the benefit and the risk.”

France recorded nearly 15,000 new infections Wednesday and a total of 61,978 virus-related deaths throughout the pandemic, among the world’s highest official death tolls.

New York will deploy officers to ensure U.K. travelers are following quarantine

New York City will send law enforcement officers to hotels to check on recently arrived travelers from the United Kingdom and ensure that they are following quarantine requirements, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced Wednesday.

Citing concerns about the fast-spreading coronavirus mutation that was recently discovered in Britain, de Blasio warned that the city “cannot take chances” during the busiest travel season of the year. All travelers are already required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, and sheriff’s deputies will be stationed at train stations, bus depots and airports, he said. The mayor added that officers will also pull over drivers to ensure they are aware of the rules.

Given the “particular concern” surrounding travel from Britain — where another coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa was also detected on Wednesday — those visitors will receive in-person visits.

“We’re going to have sheriff’s deputies go to the home or the hotel of every single traveler coming in from the U.K.,” de Blasio said at a news conference.

Anyone who is out sightseeing when the deputies arrive faces a fine of up to $1,000, de Blasio said, “and we will collect those penalties.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the new variant is probably already circulating in the United States, given that only a tiny fraction of coronavirus cases have been genetically analyzed for potential mutations. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has called on the federal government to enact a travel ban for anyone coming from Britain, but experts say that such a move might make little difference when the mutation has probably already reached the United States.

Cuomo announced Tuesday that British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic — the three airlines offering flights from the United Kingdom to New York — have agreed to ensure that all passengers test negative for the coronavirus before boarding.

Russia experiences highest one-day spike in cases

MOSCOW — Russian authorities reported 29,935 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the highest daily spike in the pandemic.

This is nearly 2,700 infections more than was registered the previous day. Russia’s total of over 2.9 million remains the fourth largest coronavirus caseload in the world. The government’s coronavirus task force has also registered more than 53,000 deaths in all.

Russia has been swept by a rapid resurgence of the outbreak this fall, with numbers of confirmed COVID-19 infections and deaths significantly exceeding those reported in the spring. The country’s authorities have resisted imposing a second nationwide lockdown or a widespread closure of businesses.

Earlier this month, mass vaccination against COVID-19 started in Russia with Sputnik V — a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine that is still undergoing advanced studies among tens of thousands of people needed to ensure its safety and effectiveness. Russia has been widely criticized for giving Sputnik V regulatory approval in August after it had only been tested on a few dozen people.

 


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