Covid News: British Tourists Scramble to Leave Portugal Ahead of Quarantine Deadline
British tourists scrambled to leave Portugal over the weekend in order to beat a Tuesday deadline for a new quarantine imposed by the British government on those returning from Portugal over concerns about a dangerous virus variant.
Britain had recently put Portugal, one of the most popular destinations for British tourists, and 12 other countries and territories with low coronavirus caseloads on a “green list,” allowing visitors coming from Britain to avoid a quarantine period upon returning from those locations.
Britons fatigued by a miserable winter and a four-month national lockdown had just begun flocking to Portugal, because most of the other green-listed places were either not accepting tourists or were not already favored destinations. The process still involved several forms and P.C.R. virus tests, whose costs can total hundreds of dollars.
The decision Thursday to reintroduce restrictions was heavily criticized by British travel operators and opposition politicians. But the government defended the move as a health-safety requirement to help Britain fight a new coronavirus variant that was first detected in India, known now as the Delta variant.
Britain’s switch of travel rules for Portugal prompted thousands of British tourists to pay extra to rebook early return flights. British Airways and other airlines added flight capacity to help bring them home.
As British tourists headed early for the airport in Faro on Sunday, a major tourism hub in Portugal’s southern Algarve region, the line there stretched well outside the terminal, according to reports from British newspapers.
The latest quarantine decision came less than a week after thousands of English soccer fans had visited Porto, in northern Portugal, to watch the final of the Champions League, with no quarantine restriction.
The move by British officials comes as cases remain generally low in Britain, though officials have been working to contain surges of the Delta variant. Daily cases have increased by 89 percent from the average two weeks ago, while deaths have increased by 49 percent, according to a New York Times database.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the rapid rise in Britain of the variant now known as Delta, which was first identified in India, demonstrates just how unpredictable the virus has been. “I don’t envy the public health officials who have to make these decisions, because I really think no one knows much,” he said.
Dr. Chiu, who was the first scientist to discover the variant in California now known as Epsilon, said the key question facing scientists about the Delta variant is how much of a threat it poses to people who are unvaccinated or only partly vaccinated.
This is particularly relevant in Britain, where health officials opted early on to vaccinate as many people as possible by administering only the first dose of a two-dose vaccine. About 60 percent of Britons have received at least one dose, but only 40 percent are fully vaccinated.
“Unfortunately that is the kind of situation where you worry about surges or outbreaks,” Dr. Chiu said.
As the Delta variant spreads across Europe, and as new variants emerge, Dr. Chiu said he expects to continue to see new restrictions and lockdowns as public health authorities respond to emerging threats. “It really points to the importance of getting as many people as possible — globally — vaccinated,” he said.
Many of the world’s poorest nations are living through their deadliest outbreaks of the pandemic, with few signs that a significant number of vaccine doses will be available to reverse that tide anytime soon.
Billion-dollar pledges to help them buy doses — and last week’s announcement that the United States will distribute an initial supply of 25 million doses around the world this month — will do little to curb the explosive outbreaks in countries including Argentina, Malaysia and Botswana, experts said. India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, won’t export any for the rest of the year as it confronts a crushing virus wave. And Covax, the global vaccine-sharing program that the poorest nations rely on, is struggling to raise money and find doses to buy.
The World Health Organization estimates that 11 billion doses need to be administered worldwide to stamp out the pandemic.
Scientists warn that as long as the virus runs rampant in much of the world, virus variants have time to mutate and possibly evolve the ability to evade vaccines.
The vaccine shortfall is widest in Africa, where about 3 percent of 1.2 billion people across more than 50 countries have received one shot, and the World Health Organization reported last week that eight countries had seen cases surge 30 percent or more in the previous seven days. Compare that with the United States, where more than 60 percent of people have received one dose, and new cases have dropped 80 percent since mid-April.
The efforts to help poorer countries are “a baby step,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “The donations to date are so modest you really won’t have much of an impact,” he said. “I don’t think any of the efforts from the U.S. even come close to recognizing the scope and magnitude of the problem.”
But experts say it’s not just a problem of political will. There is a huge bottleneck in the global vaccine supply, with the Serum Institute of India saying that it won’t resume exports until next year as it saves doses to inoculate Indians. And mishaps at factories in the United States have forced producers to sit on 100 million doses as regulators review whether they were tainted.
Last year, rich nations including the United States, Britain and Germany rushed to lock up supplies of vaccines even before it was clear that they were effective against the coronavirus. That early stockpiling has meant that of the roughly two billion vaccine doses that have been administered globally, about 85 percent have gone to the wealthiest nations. The world’s poorest, according to data tracked by the The New York Times, have administered just 0.3 percent of those doses.
Covax, which set a goal of delivering two billion doses by the end of the year for the world’s poorest countries, has distributed about 100 million doses so far.
At a virtual summit last week hosted by the Japanese government and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, wealthy countries — along with foundations and private companies — pledged $2.4 billion to Covax. Additionally, five countries — Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Spain and Sweden — said they would share a total of 54 million doses.
Dr. Hotez said that scaling production is “our only hope” to truly make a difference in global vaccine distribution, and that the United States needs to lead the effort, not just in ramping up production but also delivery.
In addition to scaling production, wealthy countries must share more of the doses they don’t need, said Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund.
As leaders of the Group of 7 industrialized nations prepare to meet in Britain next weekend, UNICEF urged them to consider donating 20 percent of their available supplies from June through August as “an important emergency stopgap measure,” Ms. Fore said.
But even if wealthy countries agree to share more vaccines, hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to ship doses, train health care workers, and provide personal protective equipment and technical assistance, Ms. Fore said.
“We need dedicated funding to get vaccines off the tarmac and into the arms of those who need them,” she said.
In a statement, Gavi said that last week’s donations and pledges of doses had put the global vaccination effort “on a path towards ending the acute phase of the pandemic.”
The organization acknowledged, however, that deliveries of those vaccines would not begin to ramp up until after September.
Globally, surges later this year might be even worse. Dr. Hotez said he was especially concerned about the Democratic Republic of Congo, where cases are rising and vaccine distribution is lagging. Over the past two weeks, Congo has reported an average of almost 200 new cases per day, although experts say the true number is likely much higher because of lack of testing.
What’s happening there may be “the beginning of something terrible, and that’s what really concerns me,” Dr. Hotez said. “The urgency is greater than ever.”
Kinsa, a start-up company that has routinely detected the spread of the seasonal flu before U.S. officials, will distribute as many as 100,000 free smart thermometers through New York City’s elementary schools and will make the resulting data available to local health officials.
The goal is to create a citywide early warning and response system for outbreaks of Covid, the flu and other infectious diseases. Kinsa, which makes internet-connected thermometers, has routinely detected the spread of seasonal flu weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And when Covid hit last year, the company saw unusual spikes in fevers about 18 days before states recorded peaks in deaths.
“One of the critical lessons that we have learned during the Covid epidemic is how important it is to have as accurate information as we can possibly get, in real time, about how diseases spread through communities,” said Dr. Jay Varma, the senior adviser for public health to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The Kinsa partnership, he added, is “going to help us strengthen our ability to understand new and emerging diseases that may pop up in the school community.”
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi on Sunday said that despite his state’s relatively low vaccination rates, case numbers showed there was no longer a high risk of contracting or being hospitalized with Covid-19.
“I took my first dose in January, as did my wife, on TV, live,” Mr. Reeves said of the shot on the CNN program “State of the Union” on Sunday. “President Biden’s goals for July 4 are otherwise arbitrary, to say the least.”
The state is among the country’s slowest in vaccinations, with 34 percent of the population having received at least one shot, according to a Times database. While the state was far from the 70 percent vaccination goal for that date set forth by the White House, Mr. Reeves said that Mississippi would continue focusing on keeping its case and hospitalization numbers stable.
“For over a year, we tried to focus our goals on reducing hospitalizations, reducing the number of individuals in I.C.U. beds, because we think the most important thing is that, if you get the virus, if you can get better with good quality care, that you receive that quality care,” he said. The state’s case load is improving. “At our peak, we had 2,400 cases per day over a seven-day period,” Mr. Reeves said. “Over the last seven days, we’ve had barely 800 cases in total over those seven days.”
He attributed the change to the vaccinations, as well as the number of people who had recovered from the virus — about 320,000, a number that he said he believes may be up to five times higher. “ And so we’ve got somewhere between one million or so Mississippians that have natural immunity.”
He added that the vaccination efforts were still a key priority for the state.
As the United States edges closer to President Biden’s goal of a 70 percent vaccination rate, many people are beginning to wonder how long their protection will last.
Although many scientists estimate that the vaccines authorized in the United States will last at least a year, no one knows for sure. It’s also unclear whether emerging variants of the coronavirus will change our vaccination needs.
Here’s what scientists know so far.
How do Covid-19 vaccines stack up against others in terms of protection?
Early signs are encouraging. Researchers have been drawing blood from volunteers in vaccine trials and measuring their levels of antibodies and immune cells that target the coronavirus. The levels are dropping, but gradually. It’s possible that with this slow rate of decline, vaccine protection will remain strong for a long time. People who were previously infected and then received the vaccine may enjoy even more durable protection.
Will some Covid vaccines last longer than others?
Scientists have already found that vaccines using different technologies can vary in their effectiveness. The strongest vaccines include Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of which are based on RNA molecules. Vaccines relying on inactivated viruses, such as those made by Sinopharm in China and Bharat Biotech in India, have proved somewhat less effective.
How will we know when our vaccines are losing their effectiveness?
Scientists are searching for biological markers that could reveal when the protection from a vaccine is no longer enough to hold back the coronavirus. It’s possible that a certain level of antibodies marks a threshold: If your blood measures above that level, you’re in good shape, but if you’re below it, you’re at greater risk of infection.
What about the variants?
The emergence of variants in recent months has accelerated research on boosters. Some variants have mutations that led them to spread swiftly. Others carry mutations that might blunt the effectiveness of authorized vaccines. But at this point, scientists still have only a smattering of clues about how existing vaccines work against different variants.
The United States will donate 750,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan, said Senator Tammy Duckworth, one of three U.S. senators who made a brief visit to the island on Sunday morning as it battles its worst coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic.
Ms. Duckworth, the junior senator from Illinois, arrived in Taiwan with Senators Chris Coons of Delaware, a fellow Democrat, and Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, as part of a larger trip to the region. Although the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, it is the island’s most important ally and its main weapons provider. The senators’ visit is likely to go over poorly with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory.
Ms. Duckworth said the vaccine donation was part of a plan the White House announced last week to distribute 25 million doses this month across a “wide range of countries” struggling to control the coronavirus.
“We are here today to underscore the bipartisan support for Taiwan and the strength of our partnership,” she said at a news conference at Songshan Airport in central Taipei, where the senators arrived from South Korea.
“I’m here to tell you that the United States will not let you stand alone,” she added.
The senators did not specify which vaccines Taiwan would receive or when they would arrive.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who appeared with the senators, described the vaccines as “timely rain for Taiwan.”
“Your help will be etched on our hearts,” said Ms. Tsai, who thanked the Biden administration for including Taiwan among the first places to receive vaccine donations. She also said she hoped that the U.S.-Taiwan partnership would continue to improve. During the three-hour visit, the senators were to discuss security and other issues with Ms. Tsai and other senior Taiwanese leaders.
After shielding itself from the coronavirus for more than a year, Taiwan has recorded several hundred new infections a day for the past three weeks. On Sunday, health officials reported 343 new local infections, including eight from last week, and 36 deaths. Although such numbers are low by international standards, the outbreak has strained Taiwan’s health system.
It has also given greater urgency to the island’s vaccination campaign, which has barely begun. Only 3 percent of Taiwan’s 23.5 million residents have received a first dose, according to a New York Times database, and the government has come under growing criticism over its vaccine procurement. Taiwan has declined offers of vaccines from China, citing safety concerns, and accused China of interfering in its vaccine deals, which Beijing denies.
On Friday, a day after the White House announcement, Taiwan received a donation of 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the government of Japan, more than doubling the total number of shots the island has received. Social media in Taiwan has been filled with expressions of gratitude to both Japan and the United States, and on Friday evening the Taipei 101 skyscraper displayed messages in Chinese and Japanese, including “Taiwan loves Japan.”
In other developments around the world:
Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, announced a new lockdown on Sunday that will close schools, churches and open markets, and ban some travel, Reuters reported. The restrictions take effect Monday, and most will last for 42 days. Confirmed cases are peaking in Uganda, and President Museveni said the country’s hospitals were at risk of being overwhelmed.
Officials in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city of 15 million people, said on Sunday that almost all residents would be tested in the next three days in an effort to halt a recent outbreak. The authorities reported seven more cases in the city on Sunday, bringing the total to 80 since the outbreak began on May 21. They also announced that anyone seeking to leave Guangzhou or the surrounding province of Guangdong would need a valid reason as well as a negative test result.
India’s capital, New Delhi, will ease some coronavirus restrictions on Monday, allowing markets to reopen with limited hours and the metro transit system to operate at 50 percent capacity, the region’s top official said on Saturday, even as he announced preparations for a potential third wave of infections.
After enduring one of the world’s most ferocious outbreaks in April and May, the broader territory of Delhi has recorded a drop in daily new cases of 85 percent over the past two weeks, and reports of new deaths have plummeted. On Sunday, India as a whole reported more than 114,000 new cases, the lowest number in two months. But across the country, gaps in testing and medical treatment leave many cases and deaths unrecorded.
“The corona situation is under control for now,” Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, told a news conference.
Mr. Kejriwal warned that any new wave could be even more severe than the spring surge, when patients suffered from acute shortages of hospital beds and medical oxygen.
He said the region would build new oxygen-production and storage facilities, and expand the capacity of intensive-care units. He also said that two genome-tracking facilities would be set up to examine samples of the virus and identify variants, and that a pediatric task force was advising the government on how to protect children in the event of a third wave.
At the start of this week, Delhi allowed some manufacturing and construction activity to resume for the first time since a lockdown was imposed six weeks earlier. Yet even a gradual reopening carries risks, given that less than 4 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated.
Other parts of India are also easing restrictions. In northern Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, Reuters reported that only night curfew restrictions remain for 55 of 75 districts.
In the industrialized western state of Maharashtra, malls, movie theaters, restaurants and offices will be allowed to open regularly as of Monday in districts where the positivity rate has fallen below 5 percent, Reuters also reported, and in Gujarat, government and private offices will be allowed to operate fully staffed, while shops in 36 cities will be able to remain open longer.
LONDON — While the United States appears to be trying to close the curtain on the pandemic — with restaurants filled, mask mandates discarded and more than 135,000 people jamming the oval at the Indianapolis 500 — it is a different story across the Atlantic.
Some European countries are maintaining limits on gatherings, reimposing curbs on travel and weighing local lockdowns. And parts of Britain have extended lockdown restrictions, while scientists are heatedly debating whether to proceed with a nationwide reopening planned for June 21.
Although vaccinations have helped drive down coronavirus cases on both sides of the pond, on the fundamental question of how to approach an end to pandemic restrictions, America and Europe have diverged.
“The British are worrying more than any other country,” said Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London. “We seem to be much more receptive to the doomsday scenarios than they are in the U.S.”
In Britain, the spread of a new, highly contagious variant first detected in India has scrambled calculations. Though scientists are at odds about the severity of the threat from the variant, known as Delta, some argue that the costs of delaying the reopening by a few weeks pale in comparison with the damage that might be wrought by giving the variant extra opportunities to spread while people are still acquiring immunity.
“We’re now looking at a variant where we have less knowledge about its properties,” said Theo Sanderson, a researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “It just means we have less certainty about what things will look like going forward.”