Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine works, but it was less effective on a new, more contagious variant.

By Amelia Nierenberg

This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.


By Amelia Nierenberg

The director of the C.D.C. said U.S. health officials “should be treating every case as if it’s a variant.”

Reports of new coronavirus cases have dropped by more than a third in recent weeks, reaching their lowest levels since November. Forty-eight states are reporting sustained declines in new infections.

Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and vaccines in development.

A new vaccine

Johnson & Johnson, the only major drugmaker developing a single-dose Covid vaccine, announced on Friday that its shot had provided strong protection in clinical trials.

If the Food and Drug Administration grants the company an emergency authorization, it would expand the vaccine supply in the United States as the Biden administration seeks to immunize many more Americans.

The results came with a significant cautionary note: In the U.S., the vaccine had an efficacy rate of 72 percent in clinical trials. But in South Africa, a country gripped by a new and more contagious variant, the efficacy rate dropped to just 57 percent.

The variant, which has spread to at least 31 countries, including the United States, may also blunt the effectiveness of Covid vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, warned that Johnson & Johnson’s trial results were a “wake up call” and warned manufacturers to be ready to reformulate the vaccines if needed.

“If ever there was reason to vaccinate as many people as expeditiously as we possibly can with the vaccine that we have right now, now is the time,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview.

Scientists still consider the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be a success: It was 85 percent effective in preventing severe disease. In all three regions where the trial was run — the United States, Latin America and South Africa — after 28 days, none of the vaccinated participants who developed Covid-19 had to be hospitalized. It is also easier to transport and administer than its rivals.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines need to be stored at extremely low temperatures, and they spoil quickly once thawed. That could make Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine easier to distribute in poorer parts of the world, where more aggressive mutants could otherwise be seeded.

Meanwhile in Europe: The E.U. approved AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine but moved to temporarily restrict doses made in the bloc from being shipped abroad. Britain, a former bloc member, had been receiving a steady flow of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca since approving it well ahead of the E.U. in early December.

Indoor dining in N.Y.C.

Restaurants in New York City will be able to open for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity on Valentine’s Day, more than a month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down service to combat a second wave of the coronavirus.

For the restaurant industry, the announcement was a source of hope. The virus has decimated an important economic sector, putting restaurants and bars out of business and axing thousands of jobs. More tables indoors, especially during the chilliest days of the year, might help some businesses hang on until warmer weather returns.

Cote, an upscale Korean barbecue steakhouse, will be able to double the number of people it can sit from the roughly 50 it can serve in its outside cabanas. It already has a 100-reservation waiting list for Valentine’s Day.

“Now that we are opening indoors, it’s going to mean we no longer have to hemorrhage tens of thousands dollars each week,” the owner Simon Kim said.

The change will bring a welcome economic boost, but it comes at an incredibly precarious phase in the state’s battle against the virus, which has killed more than 42,500 people in New York State.

While the state’s hospitalization and positivity rates have begun to trend downward after a post-holidays spike, the vaccine rollout has been sluggish; only 6 percent of New York’s population has been vaccinated so far. More than 40 cases of the more contagious British variant have also been detected statewide.

Despite virus concerns, food-focused New Yorkers rushed to secure what is likely to be a coveted reservation inside for Feb. 14. Cafe Luxembourg, an intimate French bistro, immediately started fielding “many, many calls,” said Judi Wong, a manager.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

Currently more than 150 million people — almost half the population — are eligible to be vaccinated. But each state makes the final decision about who goes first. The nation’s 21 million health care workers and three million residents of long-term care facilities were the first to qualify. In mid-January, federal officials urged all states to open up eligibility to everyone 65 and older and to adults of any age with medical conditions that put them at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19. Adults in the general population are at the back of the line. If federal and state health officials can clear up bottlenecks in vaccine distribution, everyone 16 and older will become eligible as early as this spring or early summer. The vaccine hasn’t been approved in children, although studies are underway. It may be months before a vaccine is available for anyone under the age of 16. Go to your state health website for up-to-date information on vaccination policies in your area

You should not have to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine, although you will be asked for insurance information. If you don’t have insurance, you should still be given the vaccine at no charge. Congress passed legislation this spring that bars insurers from applying any cost sharing, such as a co-payment or deductible. It layered on additional protections barring pharmacies, doctors and hospitals from billing patients, including those who are uninsured. Even so, health experts do worry that patients might stumble into loopholes that leave them vulnerable to surprise bills. This could happen to those who are charged a doctor visit fee along with their vaccine, or Americans who have certain types of health coverage that do not fall under the new rules. If you get your vaccine from a doctor’s office or urgent care clinic, talk to them about potential hidden charges. To be sure you won’t get a surprise bill, the best bet is to get your vaccine at a health department vaccination site or a local pharmacy once the shots become more widely available.

Probably not. The answer depends on a number of factors, including the supply in your area at the time you’re vaccinated. Check your state health department website for more information about the vaccines available in your state. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the only two vaccines currently approved, although a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is on the way.

That is to be determined. It’s possible that Covid-19 vaccinations will become an annual event, just like the flu shot. Or it may be that the benefits of the vaccine last longer than a year. We have to wait to see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. To determine this, researchers are going to be tracking vaccinated people to look for “breakthrough cases” — those people who get sick with Covid-19 despite vaccination. That is a sign of weakening protection and will give researchers clues about how long the vaccine lasts. They will also be monitoring levels of antibodies and T cells in the blood of vaccinated people to determine whether and when a booster shot might be needed. It’s conceivable that people may need boosters every few months, once a year or only every few years. It’s just a matter of waiting for the data.

Employers do have the right to compel their workers to be vaccinated once a vaccine is formally approved. Many hospital systems, for example, require annual flu shots. But employees can seek exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs. In such cases, employers are supposed to provide a “reasonable accommodation” — with a coronavirus vaccine, for example, a worker might be allowed to work if they wear a mask, or to work from home.

If you have other questions about the coronavirus vaccine, please read our full F.A.Q.

“We’re always preparing for a change,” Ms. Wong said about the state’s shifting restrictions. “And this was a welcome change.”

Resurgences

The highly transmissible variant from South Africa has been identified in the United States, with two cases detected in South Carolina.

Mexico’s confirmed coronavirus death toll passed India’s on Thursday to become the world’s third-highest, after Brazil and the United States.

The University of Michigan advised students to stay home after at least 14 people contracted a new variant.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

What else we’re following

After months of delays, scientists from the W.H.O. began field work to trace the pandemic’s origin in Wuhan, China.

The W.H.O. no longer opposes vaccinating pregnant people, unless they are at high risk.

Canada will suspend flights to several resort areas in Mexico and the Caribbean in an attempt to stem the spread of new variants. “Now is just not the time to be flying,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

France and Germany both implemented travel restrictions in an attempt to stem the spread of variants.

A dispatch from Canada

Carole Landry, a writer and editor on the Briefings team, wrote about her time in a part of the world where the coronavirus is almost completely absent.

Today, my family and I are starting the long drive back to New York City after nearly two months in a world largely free of Covid. We’ve been spending time with family on Cape Breton Island, at the northeastern end of Nova Scotia, where we’ve been able to meet with friends, go to restaurants, do some shopping and basically plunge back into the Before Times.

There are currently three active cases of Covid in the region that includes the island, and nine active cases in the entire province of Nova Scotia. It’s not as if people here are completely oblivious — mask wearing is strictly enforced, and social distancing is taken seriously, as I found out when I walked against the arrows on the floor of a grocery store.

I’ve been struck at how our time here has been much less stressful. In New York, outings carried a risk. I now realize that we had lived under a steady but grinding, low-level stress.

I’ve so appreciated the opportunity to be social again, to talk face to face with friends. I feel as if I’ve peered into the post-pandemic future, and, friends, it’s wonderful.

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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Carole Landry contributed to today’s newsletter.

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