More Contagious Covid Variant Is Now Dominant in U.S., C.D.C. Says

WASHINGTON — A highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in Britain has become the most common source of new infections in the United States, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The worrisome development comes as officials and scientists warn of a possible fourth surge of infections.

Federal health officials said in January that the B.1.1.7 variant, which began surging in Britain in December and has since slammed Europe, could become the dominant source of coronavirus infections in the United States, leading to a huge increase in cases and deaths.

At that point, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths were at an all-time high. From that peak, the numbers all declined until late February, according to a New York Times database. After several weeks at a plateau, new cases and hospitalizations are increasing again. The average number of new cases in the country has reached nearly 65,000 a day as of Tuesday, concentrated mostly in metro areas in Michigan as well as in the New York City region. That is an increase of 19 percent compared with the figure two weeks ago.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, who warned last week that she felt a recurring sense of “impending doom,” said on Wednesday that 52 of the agency’s 64 jurisdictions — which include states, some major cities and territories — are now reporting cases of these so-called “variants of concern,” including B.1.1.7.

60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the coronavirus, according to the most recent estimates. The C.D.C. has also been tracking the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.

The percentage of cases caused by variants is clearly increasing. Helix, a lab testing company, has tracked the relentless increase of B.1.1.7 since the beginning of the year. As of April 3, it estimated that the variant made up 58.9 percent of all new tests.

That variant has been found to be most prevalent in Michigan, Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts, according to the C.D.C. Until recently, the variant’s rise was somewhat camouflaged by falling infection rates over all, leading some political leaders to relax restrictions on indoor dining, social distancing and other measures.

against the warnings of some scientists.

Federal health officials are tracking reports of increasing cases associated with day care centers and youth sports, and hospitals are seeing more younger adults — people in their 30s and 40s who are admitted with “severe disease,” Dr. Walensky said.

It is difficult for scientists to say exactly how much of the current patterns of infection are because of the growing frequency of B.1.1.7.

“It’s muddled by the reopening that’s going on and changes in behavior,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, a virologist at the University of Michigan.

But he noted that people were becoming less cautious at a time when they should be raising their guard against a more contagious variant. “It’s worrisome,” he said.

At the same time, the United States is currently vaccinating an average of about three million people a day, and states have rushed to make all adults eligible. The C.D.C. reported on Tuesday that about 108.3 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 64.4 million people who have been fully vaccinated. New Mexico, South Dakota, Rhode Island and Alaska are leading the states, with about 25 percent of their total populations fully vaccinated.

Scientists hope that vaccination will blunt any potential fourth surge.

On Tuesday, President Biden moved up his vaccination timetable by two weeks, calling states to make every American adult eligible by April 19. All states have already met or expect to beat this goal after he initially asked that they do so by May 1.

hundreds of genomes predicted that this variant could become predominant in the country in a month. At that time, the C.D.C. was struggling to sequence the new variants, which made it difficult to track them.

But those efforts have substantially improved in recent weeks and will continue to grow, in large part because of $1.75 billion in funds for genomic sequencing in the stimulus package that Mr. Biden signed into law last month. By contrast, Britain, which has a more centralized health care system, began a highly promoted sequencing program last year that allowed it to track the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant.

“We knew this was going to happen: This variant is a lot more transmissible, much more infectious than the parent strain, and that obviously has implications,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and an infectious disease expert at Emory University. In addition to spreading more efficiently, he said, the B.1.1.7 strain appears to cause more severe disease, “so that gives you a double whammy.”

Perhaps even more troubling is the emergence of the virulent P.1 variant in North America. First identified in Brazil, it has become the dominant variant in that country, helping to drive its hospitals to the breaking point. In Canada, the P.1 variant emerged as a cluster in Ontario, then shut down the Whistler ski resort in British Columbia. On Wednesday, the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks said at least 21 players and four staff members had been infected with the coronavirus.

“This is a stark reminder of how quickly the virus can spread and its serious impact, even among healthy, young athletes,” the team’s doctor, Jim Bovard, said in a statement.

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Democrats Push Biden to Take Harder Line on Saudi Arabia

In addition to advancing the travel ban by Mr. Kim and Mr. Malinowski, the Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to require American intelligence officials to release a report on the role that commercial entities controlled by the crown prince — such as shell companies or airlines — played in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. The amendment, led by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, sets up a process to eventually impose sanctions on those organizations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Lawmakers have also become increasingly concerned with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as the nation faces rising rates of famine that aid groups warn are likely to rise, after an air and sea blockade by the Saudi-led coalition on Houthi-controlled territory has restricted imports of vital goods.

As part of cease-fire negotiations, Saudi officials offered last month to reopen the airport in Sana, the Yemeni capital, and allow fuel and food to flow through a major Yemeni seaport, but a spokesman for the Houthis said that they would not agree to discuss a cease-fire until Saudi Arabia first lifted its blockade.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee were shaken after a closed-door briefing they received late last month from David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme and a former Republican governor. Mr. Beasley, who had just returned from a trip to Yemen, painted a dire situation of mass starvation and hospitals without fuel, and impressed upon lawmakers the urgency of lifting the blockade “immediately,” according to two officials who attended.

“Ending U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen alone isn’t enough if we allow the blockade to continue,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, who led the letter to the Biden administration. “This blockade is causing immense suffering and starvation among Yemeni children and families, and it needs to be lifted now.”

But pushing the administration to pressure the Saudis to do so may be an uphill battle, according to Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, who said in an interview that control of the ports amounted to “very important pieces of leverage in the negotiations from the Saudi perspective.”

“When you look at it from the perspective of the administration, they are trying to deal with these things through existing negotiation mechanisms,” Mr. Salisbury said. “On Yemen, and in many other cases, there is no profoundly simple way of ending the war.”

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California plans to lift virus restrictions in June if certain benchmarks are met.

California plans to lift all its coronavirus restrictions on June 15, provided there are enough Covid-19 vaccines available for anyone age 16 and older and hospitalizations remain low and stable, state officials announced on Tuesday.

The move in June will allow Californians to return to restaurants, bars, movie theaters, houses of worship and concerts without strict capacity limits for the first time in well more than a year. Other states have already eased health restrictions at a time when the Biden administration is pleading with them not make those changes just yet. The country is facing a fourth possible surge of the virus and there are concerns about spread of worrisome variants. The president has also said there will be enough vaccines available for all adults by the end of May.

“Too many Americans are acting as if this fight is over,” Mr. Biden said last week. “It is not.”

Cases in California have been on the decline since the peak early this year, as have the number of hospitalizations related to Covid-19 and deaths. As of Monday, 34 percent of the state’s total population has received at least one vaccine shot, and 18 percent are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With more than 20 million vaccines administered across the state, it is time to turn the page on our tier system and begin looking to fully reopen California’s economy,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic.”

in which reopening a vast economy can be much more complex, unequal and politically fraught than shutting one down.

The latest announcement will lift what state leaders have referred to as California’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” which laid out a system of color-coded tiers of restrictions. As individual counties reached certain case thresholds, they were allowed to move through the tiers.

The tier system was first introduced in August, as the state grappled with an alarming rise in new cases. Mr. Newsom and other state leaders emphasized that the state needed to have the ability to quickly reimpose emergency measures if hospitals started to fill up.

Around Thanksgiving, there were signs of that happening. By December, hospitals — especially in hard hit areas, like Los Angeles — were overwhelmed with patients, and the state ordered Californians to stay at home again.

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Biden Plan Spurs Fight Over What ‘Infrastructure’ Really Means

“Many people in the states would be surprised to hear that broadband for rural areas no longer counts,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden in the White House. “We think that the people in Jackson, Miss., might be surprised to hear that fixing that water system doesn’t count as infrastructure. We think the people of Texas might disagree with the idea that the electric grid isn’t infrastructure that needs to be built with resilience for the 21st century.”

White House officials said that much of Mr. Biden’s plan reflected the reality that infrastructure had taken on a broader meaning as the nature of work changes, focusing less on factories and shipping goods and more on creating and selling services.

Other economists back the idea that the definition has changed.

Dan Sichel, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a former Federal Reserve research official, said it could be helpful to think of what comprises infrastructure as a series of concentric circles: a basic inner band made up of roads and bridges, a larger social ring of schools and hospitals, then a digital layer including things like cloud computing. There could also be an intangible layer, like open-source software or weather data.

“It is definitely an amorphous concept,” he said, but basically “we mean key economic assets that support and enable economic activity.”

The economy has evolved since the 1950s: Manufacturers used to employ about a third of the work force but now count for just 8.5 percent of jobs in the United States. Because the economy has changed, it is important that our definitions are updated, Mr. Sichel said.

The debate over the meaning of infrastructure is not new. In the days of the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority, academics and policymakers sparred over whether universal access to electricity was necessary public infrastructure, said Shane M. Greenstein, an economist at Harvard Business School whose recent research focuses on broadband.

“Washington has an attention span of several weeks, and this debate is a century old,” he said. These days, he added, it is about digital access instead of clean water and power.

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The plan for post-pandemic life in England includes free testing and Covid certificates.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain offered a first detailed glimpse of what a post-pandemic society in England might look like on Monday, announcing free twice-weekly coronavirus tests and Covid status certificates that would allow people with immunity into crowded nightclubs and sporting events.

The plans were the next step in the British government’s cautious reopening of the economy, and its first effort to tackle thorny questions about how to distinguish between people who are protected against the virus and those who are still vulnerable, as the country edges back toward normalcy.

“I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference at 10 Downing Street, as he listed the next round of relaxed restrictions.

Trying to strike a balance between public health and personal liberties, he said Britain would design a system to certify the Covid status of anyone seeking to enter higher-risk settings. While pubs and nonessential shops might be allowed to demand proof of Covid-free status, they will not be required to do so.

Britain has long resisted the idea of requiring people to carry identity documents, and for some in the country, this issue carries authoritarian overtones. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, recently suggested that Covid “passports” could be against the “British instinct.”

Mr. Johnson acknowledged the sensitivities and pointed out that the certification plan would not be rolled out for a few months. The government plans to test the program in pilot locations, from a comedy club and nightclub in Liverpool to the FA Cup soccer final at Wembley Stadium.

“You’ve got to be very careful in how you handle this,” he said, “and don’t start a system that is discriminatory.”

Starting next week, the prime minister said nonessential shops, hairdressers and beer gardens in pubs would be allowed to reopen. But he was far more cautious about foreign travel, declining to say whether the government would stick to its earlier target of May 17 for lifting a ban on overseas vacations.

Britain plans to classify countries according to a traffic light system, with visitors from green countries not required to isolate themselves, visitors from amber countries required to isolate at home for several days, and those from red countries required to continue quarantining in hotels.

With more than 31 million people having gotten at least one vaccine “jab,” and the country still largely in lockdown, Britain has dramatically driven down its new cases, hospital admissions and deaths from the virus. As a result, Mr. Johnson’s focus has shifted to managing a steadily more open society.

Among his most ambitious plan is to offer free rapid testing kits to the entire population, so people can test themselves routinely. The kits, already used by hospitals and schools, will be available by mail or at pharmacies.

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Johnson Announces Free Covid Tests and Status Certificates for England

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered Britons their first detailed glimpse of what a post-pandemic society might look like on Monday, announcing free twice-weekly coronavirus tests in England and Covid status certificates that would allow people with immunity into crowded nightclubs and sporting events.

The plans were the next step in the British government’s cautious reopening of the economy, and its first effort to tackle thorny questions about how to distinguish between people who are protected against the virus and those who are still vulnerable, as the country edges back toward normalcy.

“I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference at 10 Downing Street, as he listed the next round of relaxed restrictions.

Trying to strike a balance between public health and personal liberties, he said Britain would design a system to certify the Covid status of anyone seeking to enter higher-risk settings. While pubs and nonessential shops might be allowed to demand proof of Covid-free status, they will not be required to do so.

With more than 31 million people having gotten at least one vaccine jab, and the country still largely in lockdown, Britain has dramatically driven down its new cases, hospital admissions and deaths from the virus. As a result, Mr. Johnson’s focus has shifted to managing a steadily more open society.

Among his most ambitious plan is to offer free rapid testing kits to the entire population, so people can test themselves routinely. The kits, already used by hospitals and schools, will be available by mail or at pharmacies.

Public health experts applauded the gradual pace of government’s measures, which they said were appropriate for a country in which the virus was still circulating, even with declining death rates and a rapid vaccine rollout. But they expressed skepticism about the testing program, questioning whether people would have the incentive to put themselves through a test twice a week.

“Testing only works if people isolate, based on a positive result,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “But if they can’t go to work and will lose income, what’s the incentive to get tested?”

Britain’s experience with testing and tracing has been among the most abysmal parts of its pandemic performance. Even now, experts said, it only isolates between a quarter and a half of those who come into contact with people who test positive for the virus.

“There’s still no proper effort at supported isolation, and an obsession with testing rates with no apparent understanding of the purpose of testing,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government who has been an outspoken critic of its response to the pandemic.

While Professor King credited the government with finally becoming more cautious, he said, “the level of the virus in the country is so high that there is no reason to think we are out of this yet.”

The announcement on Covid certification follows weeks of contradictory signals. In February, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for the vaccine rollout, described its use for anything other than foreign travel as “wrong and discriminatory.” Last month, Mr. Johnson suggested it might be up to individual pubs to decide whether to require Covid passports before serving customers.

Under the government’s current thinking, the certification would apply to people who are vaccinated, who recently tested negative for the virus, or who can prove natural immunity from having recovered from Covid.

Opposition comes both from defenders of civil liberties on the left and libertarians on the right. Last week, more than 70 lawmakers last week signed a letter opposing the “divisive and discriminatory use” of Covid passports. They included more than 40 Conservative lawmakers who are part of the Covid Recovery Group, a caucus of lawmakers that has criticized lockdown measures.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Graham Brady, who chairs an influential group of Conservative backbenchers, argued that Covid passports make little practical sense because many young people will probably not have been offered a vaccination by the time the government plans to reopen much of the economy. Fundamental principles were also at stake, he said.

“At the beginning of last year, patient confidentiality was a sacred principle and the idea that other people could inspect our medical records was anathema,” Mr. Brady wrote. “Now the state is contemplating making us divulge our Covid status as a condition of going to the pub or cinema.”

Given the skepticism of the Labour leader, Mr. Starmer, the government knows that if it goes too far, it could lose a vote on the measure in Parliament.

Still, some see the civil liberties arguments as more evenly balanced. Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and expert on Covid-related laws, said the government needed to tread carefully because of privacy issues and because “a system such as this could put them on collision course with anti-discrimination laws, for example for people who cannot get vaccinated because of a disability.”

But he added that there was nevertheless a valid civil liberties argument for introducing vaccine passports.

“Lockdown is a very serious imposition on everyone’s liberties and increasingly a hammer to crack a nut,” Mr. Wagner said. “One way to reduce the possibility of lockdown is to allow people who are not infectious, or are less likely to be infectious, to do more of the things that people normally do than those who are infectious or who are more likely to be infectious.”

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Kenya Blocks Private Covid Vaccine Imports on Fear of Fakes

Kenya has canceled the private importation and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, citing the need to safeguard against the possible introduction of fake doses and to ensure “greater transparency and accountability.”

Licenses given to private hospitals and clinics to administer the vaccines were canceled and any entity found to be advertising or vaccinating people for a fee will be prosecuted, the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus said on Friday evening.

“Participation of the private sector in the vaccination exercise threatens the gains made in the fight against Covid-19 and puts the country at international risk should counterfeit commodities find their way into the Kenyan market,” read a statement signed by health minister Mutahi Kagwe.

The suspension comes days after private health facilities started administering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, charging up to $70 for a shot. While the vaccine had received emergency use authorization in Kenya, there was confusion when some health officials said the jabs were not approved for commercial sale.

came a month late and the next shipment, which was expected this month, is already facing delays.

“There is an expectation that they will begin again in full in May, with catch-up accelerating thereafter,” a Covax spokesman said in a statement.

The suspension also comes as Kenya is undergoing a third wave of soaring infection rates, rising deaths and scarce intensive care unit beds. To curb the spread, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a partial lockdown last week, including longer curfew hours, the closure of bars and schools, and limiting traveling in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and surrounding counties.

denied entry into England. British, Irish and third country nationals with residence rights will be required to quarantine in a government-approved facility for 10 days.

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