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A new and potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus has begun to outpace other versions of the virus in Britain, putting pressure on the government to shorten people’s wait for second doses of vaccines and illustrating the risks of a faltering global immunization drive.
The new variant, which has become dominant in India since first being detected there in December, may be responsible in part for a virus wave across Southeast Asia, including Nepal.
Efforts to understand the variant picked up once it began spreading in Britain, one of at least 49 countries where it is present. Scientists there are sequencing half of all coronavirus cases.
The preliminary results out of Britain, drawn from a few thousand cases of the variant, contained both good and bad news, scientists said.
The variant, known by evolutionary biologists as B.1.617.2, is “highly likely” to be more transmissible than the variant behind Britain’s devastating wintertime surge, government scientists have said.
Helpfully for Britain and other wealthy nations, the variant has emerged at a less dire moment of the pandemic. More than four out of every five people in England above age 65 have been given both doses of a coronavirus vaccine, driving down hospitalizations and deaths.
And a new study by Public Health England offered reassuring signs that fully vaccinated people were well protected from the variant.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offered 88 percent protection against the variant first sampled in India, only a slight drop from the 93 percent protection given against the variant from Britain, Public Health England said. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was 60 percent effective against the variant from India, compared with 66 percent against the one first seen in Britain.
Because people in Britain started receiving AstraZeneca’s vaccine later than Pfizer’s, they have been followed for a shorter period, meaning that the effectiveness figures for that vaccine may underestimate the true numbers, scientists said. Other studies in England have shown little to no difference between the effectiveness of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
For now, a rise in cases of the variant from India has not caused an overall surge in the virus in Britain. And not all scientists are convinced that the variant is as contagious as feared. The true test will be whether it surges in other countries, especially those — unlike Britain — that are grappling with high case counts of other variants, Andrew Rambaut, a professor of molecular evolution at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote on Twitter.
In Britain, part of its rapid growth may have to do with the particular places it was first introduced. Bolton, in northwestern England, where the new variant is most advanced, is a highly deprived area with tightly packed housing that could be hastening its spread, scientists said.
“We do not know if the increase in transmissibility is the result of specific mixing patterns, or super-spreading events,” a group of researchers led by Robert Challen of the University of Exeter reported on May 11, in a study that was among those presented to an influential government advisory group.
That government advisory body said several days later that it had “high confidence” that the variant first seen in India was indeed more contagious, warning that a “substantial resurgence of hospitalizations” was possible. It said that the variant was gaining a foothold in diverse parts of Britain where “contact patterns or behaviors” alone could not explain its spread.
Vaccine passports will not be at play in the state of Alabama.
On Monday, the state’s governor, Kay Ivey, signed into law legislation that bans government institutions, along with schools and private businesses, from refusing goods, services or admission to people because of their immunization status.
The law, which goes into immediate effect, says that state and local governments “may not issue vaccine or immunization passports, vaccine or immunization passes or any other standardized documentation for the purpose of certifying the immunization status of an individual.”
Under the law, educational institutions can still require students to prove their vaccination status, but only for specific vaccines that were required as of Jan. 1 and if the institution gives “an exemption for students with a medical condition or religious belief that is contrary to vaccination.”
More than 400 college campuses are requiring students to be inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine before enrolling this fall semester, with most of the mandates coming from states that voted for President Biden.
In a statement on Monday, Ms. Ivey said that although she had received the coronavirus vaccine and was “glad for the peace of mind it brings,” people should not be required to be inoculated.
“I am supportive of a voluntary vaccine, and by signing this bill into law, I am only further solidifying that conviction,” Ms. Ivey wrote.
In the United States, vaccine passports are not mandatory but allow people to easily prove that they are vaccinated. The passports have become a cultural flash point as the shots become more accessible. In Alabama, almost 29 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, about 10 percent less than the U.S. average, as of Monday, according to a New York Times database.
Republican governors in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Montana and Texas have denounced the use of vaccine passports and have issued executive orders similar to Alabama’s new law.
In March, New York State introduced the Excelsior Pass, a digital version of a vaccine passport, which allows residents to show businesses and venues that they have proof of vaccination or that they have received a negative Covid-19 test.
At the federal level, the Biden administration has said the government will not issue a digital system that tracks people’s coronavirus vaccination status.
“The government is not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in April. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
Children who get sick from the rare but serious Covid-related inflammatory syndrome may surmount their most significant symptoms within six months, but they may still have muscle weakness and emotional difficulties at that time, a new small study suggests.
Published in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health on Monday, the study appears to be the first detailed look at the health status of children six months after they were hospitalized with the condition, called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. The syndrome typically emerges two weeks to six weeks after a coronavirus infection that is often quite mild, and can result in hospitalizations for children with severe symptoms involving the heart and several other organs.
A major question has been whether children who survive MIS-C will end up with lasting organ damage or other health problems. The new study, of 46 children under 18 who were admitted to a London hospital for MIS-C (it has a different name and abbreviation, PIMS-TS, in Britain), suggests that many of the most serious problems can resolve with time.
“To be honest, I think we all didn’t know what to expect,” said Dr. Justin Penner, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the hospital involved in the study, Great Ormond Street Hospital. “We didn’t know which body systems would require assistance or become a problem one month, three months, six months down the line.”
The children in the study were hospitalized between April 4 and Sept. 1, 2020, part of the first wave of the inflammatory syndrome. They all had systemic inflammation, and most had symptoms involving multiple organ systems, such as the heart, kidneys or circulatory system. Forty-five had gastrointestinal symptoms, and 24 had neurological symptoms such as confusion, memory problems, hallucinations, headaches or problems with balance or muscle control.
Sixteen of the children were placed on ventilators, 22 needed medication to help their hearts pump more effectively and 40 were treated with immunotherapies like intravenous immunoglobulin. All survived.
Six months after they were discharged from the hospital, one child still had systemic inflammation, two had heart abnormalities and six had gastrointestinal symptoms. All but one were able to resume school, either virtually or in person.
Still, 18 were experiencing muscle weakness and fatigue, scoring in the bottom 3 percent for their age and sex on the six-minute walking test, a standard test of endurance and aerobic capacity. And 15 were experiencing emotional difficulties like anxiety or severe mood changes, according to questionnaires answered by either the parents or the children.