Covid-19 Live News: California Begins Vaccinating Inmates, but Not at Its Hardest-Hit Prisons

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

California’s prison system, which has been exceptionally hard-hit by the coronavirus, has started vaccinating some inmates — but none so far at the 25 prisons that have been most overwhelmed by infections, including San Quentin, Avenal State Prison and the California Institution for Men.

Elizabeth Gransee, a spokeswoman for J. Clark Kelso, a court-appointed official who oversees prison health care in California, said on Wednesday that the prison system had decided to concentrate its vaccination efforts at facilities where “people are at significant risk of becoming infected or severely ill from the coronavirus.”

But the facilities chosen — the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, the California Health Care Facility in Stockton and the California Medical Facility in Vacaville — have had far fewer infections and deaths than most other state prisons.

Ms. Gransee would not provide the specific date of when vaccinations started at the three facilities. She also declined to provide other details about the state prison’s vaccination program in response to written questions.

In all, 25 California prisons have individual caseloads surpassing 1,000. The largest outbreak has been at overcrowded Avenal, in Central California, which has logged more than 3,500 infections. That is one of the nation’s largest known coronavirus clusters.

During the past month, infections at the state’s prisons have nearly doubled and deaths have increased by more than 30 percent, according to a New York Times database tracking coronavirus cases in the nation’s correctional facilities.

The state’s handling of the virus has come under repeated criticism. Recently, planned transfers of medically vulnerable inmates from San Quentin to other prisons were abruptly halted after public objections. This spring, another inmate transfer ultimately led to more than 2,600 infections of inmates and guards and 28 inmate deaths at San Quentin.

The crowded, unsanitary conditions in prisons have made them epicenters for the virus. In recent weeks, there have been heated discussions in some states about whether inmates should receive vaccinations ahead of others. The infection rate among inmates is more than four times higher than rates among members of the general public, and the death rate is twice as high.

At Avenal, which state figures say is at 116 percent occupancy, Thai Tran, 43, tested positive for the virus last month. Before he fell ill, he had been sleeping in a crowded gym with some 140 other inmates, said his wife, Michelle Tran.

If incarcerated people are to be kept safe from the virus, inmates and correctional officers alike should receive vaccinations, Ms. Tran said.

“My husband didn’t go to Walmart and pick it up,” Ms. Tran said. “He didn’t go to the market and get it. It’s coming in from those coming in from the outside.”

Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Los Angeles County, already in the throes of a devastating surge in coronavirus cases after Thanksgiving travel and gatherings, is being hit with a spike from Christmas festivities.

The weekly average of new cases per day in the county, the largest in the United States, is at its highest yet, 16,193.

That is about 12 times the weekly average of Nov. 1, which was 1,347.

Even as the deluge of coronavirus cases has overwhelmed hospitals around the state and Los Angeles County in particular, some Angelenos sought to celebrate the new year at clandestine parties. Police dispersed more than a thousand people who had attended a warehouse party, The Los Angeles Times reported.

More than 21,000 people were in the hospital on New Year’s Day in California, according to a New York Times database, a 26 percent increase from two weeks earlier.

For weeks, many intensive care units in the Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley regions have been at or near capacity. At one Los Angeles hospital late last month, incoming patients waited in a tent outside — the lobby was being used to treat patients, and gurneys were placed in the gift shop.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday that the state of the virus in California had made it “self-evident” that stay-at-home orders for the state’s southern and central regions, which were set to expire, would remain in place.

“Things, unfortunately, will get worse before they get better,” he said, adding that care for non-Covid patients in emergency rooms was being slowed as intensive care units struggle to manage the onslaught brought by the wave of coronavirus cases.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The United States and Britain this week diverged further in their vaccination strategies as American scientists, health experts and federal officials questioned or dismissed recent decisions made by officials in the U.K.

Britain has been straying increasingly from the dosing regimens tested in late-stage clinical trials run by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

On Wednesday, British health officials announced that they would delay second doses of vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca to concentrate on giving more people first injections — an attempt to more widely distribute the partial protections afforded by a single shot.

The idea has gained proponents in both countries. But many have also spoken out against the deviations from typical procedure, made without public meetings or strong data to support them. Some experts — including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States — balked at the prospect of implementing the idea in the U.S., where vaccine rollouts have already been stymied by myriad logistical hurdles and a patchwork approach to prioritizing who gets the first shots.

Also, Britain has quietly updated its vaccination playbook to allow for a mix-and-match regimen. If a second dose of the vaccine a patient originally received isn’t available, or if the manufacturer of the first shot isn’t known, health officials said, another vaccine may be used for the second shot.

But it is far from certain that the vaccines are so interchangeable, several researchers warned.

Viewed as cavalier departures from scientifically backed guidance, experts said, these decisions could further erode public trust in vaccines at a time when deployment is crucial and a new and potentially more transmissible variant of the coronavirus continues to ricochet around the globe.

“Even the appearance of tinkering has negatives, in terms of people having trust in the process,” said Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida. “You can have a highly efficacious vaccine, but if you can’t get it to people, then it’s not going to give that protection.”

The idea of delaying the second dose appears to have gained little traction in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. In a news conference on Wednesday, Moncef Slaoui, the scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed — the federal effort to accelerate vaccine development and distribution — expressed skepticism about the idea.

“It’s very important, I think, to use the vaccine based on how you have studied it,” Dr. Slaoui said. “For me, the biggest concern if we were to extend the time period between the first and second dose, is what happens to persistence of protection.”

On Friday, Dr. Fauci told CNN that he would advise U.S. officials not to follow Britain’s lead in accelerating first injections at the expense of second shots.

“I would not be in favor of that,” Dr. Fauci said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

global roundup

Credit…Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Canada will require passengers seeking to board international flights into the country to show their airline proof of a negative coronavirus test, in addition to entering an already existing, mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival.

The new rule, which the government announced on Thursday, will take effect on Jan. 7 and will require proof of a negative PCR test taken in the previous 72 hours. PCR tests must be sent to a lab and can take several days to process, unlike the rapid antigen test, which gives a result in about 30 minutes.

The country remains closed to most foreign nationals entering for nonessential purposes, but it is tightening its already strict entry protocols as parts of the country, including Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, grapple with an alarming increase in virus cases and deaths.

After a relatively calm summer, cases and deaths in Canada have been on the rise throughout the fall, according to a New York Times database. More than 15,000 people have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic, and 573,000 cases have been reported.

As of Jan. 7, the only passengers not required to show a negative PCR test to board a Canada-bound international flight will be children under the age of 5, passengers whose planes are stopping only to refuel, and airline crew members and emergency medical workers.

Flights from the United Kingdom, where a more contagious variant of the virus was recently detected, were suspended as of Dec. 23 and will remain so until Jan. 6. Nonetheless, a couple in Ontario with no known travel history were found to be infected with the new variant last week.

In other news from around the world:

  • Vietnam has reported a case of the variant first discovered in Britain, making it the 34th country to identify the variant within its borders. The health ministry said the case was identified in a 44-year-old woman who had returned to Vietnam from Britain, Reuters reported. She quarantined upon arrival in Vietnam and tested positive on Dec. 24.

  • After days of record-setting coronavirus tallies in Tokyo, the city’s governor, Yuriko Koike, asked Japan’s central government on Saturday to declare a national state of emergency for the first time since April, as part of a broader effort to urge residents to stay home as much as possible. Tokyo reported a record 1,337 new infections on Thursday, and the nation has reported a daily average of nearly 3,000 cases over the past week.

  • Facing broad criticism, the government of the Netherlands on Saturday said it would speed up its lagging vaccination process and provide the first shots to frontline health care workers earlier than its planned start of next Friday. The new start date is expected to be announced on Monday. Most European nations started vaccinations last week. Despite being in lockdown since Dec. 14, the country’s infection rate has only recently gone down, and only slightly, leaving it still among the highest in Europe, with an average of 51 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks.

  • Brazil’s pandemic death toll — the world’s second-highest — is approaching 200,000, as of Saturday. Only the United States has recorded more deaths, with nearly 350,000. Brazil has reported around 7.6 million cases, and Minas Gerais leads all Brazilian states in new ones, with a daily average of nearly 4,000 over the past week.

  • South Korea said on Saturday that it would extend until Jan. 17 restrictions in and around Seoul that had shuttered schools, gyms, karaoke rooms, bars and other high-risk facilities. Those restrictions are at the second-highest level of a five-tier system, in a country whose pandemic response was once held up as a model. The government said on Saturday that it would expand one of the restrictions — a ban on gatherings of more than four people — from Seoul to the entire country.

  • Zimbabwe will shutter nonessential businesses for a month and extend a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, its information secretary, Nick Mangwana, said on Saturday. The measures also include restrictions on travel between cities and a 30-day ban on gatherings such as weddings and church services. In the span of a week, the country has recorded 1,342 new cases and 29 new deaths, its highest so far, Mr. Mangwana said.

  • In the northern Chinese city of Shenyang, which reported seven cases on Friday, officials ramped up restrictions on Saturday by closing public spaces, limiting some residents from leaving their home district and ordering nonessential workers in some areas to stay home, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Officials in Beijing, about 400 miles southwest of Shenyang, also said they had succeeded in taming a small outbreak, but they warned that it could still spread beyond the district where it began.

Credit…Steve Helber/Associated Press

Ben Chafin, a Republican state senator from Virginia, has died of complications of Covid-19, the State Senate’s Republican Caucus confirmed on Friday evening. He had been receiving treatment at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond for two weeks, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Chafin, 60, was first elected to Virginia’s Senate in 2014. Before his time as senator he served as a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. He was also the owner and operator of a cattle farm in Moccasin Valley, in the state’s southwest.

“Ben was deeply and wholeheartedly committed to the commonwealth, and especially to the people of Southwest Virginia,” said Thomas K. Norment Jr., the State Senate’s Republican leader.

In 2018, Mr. Chafin was one of four Republicans who successfully supported the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia when his party controlled the Senate.

“Doing nothing about the medical conditions, the state of health care in my district, just wasn’t the answer any longer,” he said on the Senate floor.

That same year, he sponsored a bill to allow guns in churches in response to a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which more than two dozen people were killed. The bill stalled in the House.

Mr. Chafin grew up working on his family’s farm and had a part-time job at a local meatpacking plan while in high school, according to his Senate website. He and his sister became the first members of their family to graduate from college, and he went on to earn a law degree from the University of Richmond School of Law.

Gov. Ralph Northam offered his condolences to Mr. Chafin’s family on Friday, saying in a statement that he “will always be grateful” for Mr. Chafin’s “courageous vote to expand health care for people who need it.”

“This is sad news, to begin a new year with the loss of a kind and gracious man,” Mr. Northam said. “May we all recommit to taking extra steps to care for one another.”

Local news outlets reported that Mr. Chafin’s family will not have a formal burial service. At his behest, they said, the family is requesting food bank donations “in lieu of flowers and other acts of kindness.”

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

LAGOS, Nigeria — As the pandemic has swept across the world, it has become increasingly evident that in a vast majority of countries on the African continent, most deaths are never formally registered. Reliable data on a country’s deaths and their causes are hard to come by, which means governments can miss emerging health threats — whether Ebola or the coronavirus — and often have to formulate health policy blindly.

Covid-19 has been said to have largely bypassed Africa. But as with other diseases, the virus’s true toll here will probably never be known, partly because elevated mortality rates cannot be used as a measure the way they are elsewhere.

In other parts of the world, epidemics have been identified by unusual spikes in deaths compared with the mortality rate in a normal year. But many African governments are unable to do this, as they do not know the baseline mortality in their own countries.

“The mortality due to Covid in the African continent is not a major public issue,” said Dorian Job, the West Africa program manager for Doctors Without Borders. What he called “crazy predictions” on Covid — the United Nations said in April that up to 3.3 million Africans would die from it, for example — meant that harsh lockdowns were imposed. The economic and social effects of these would be felt in Africa for decades, Dr. Job said.

Families often don’t know they are expected to report deaths, or even if they do, there is little incentive to do so. Many families bury loved ones in the yard at home, where they don’t need a burial permit, let alone a death certificate.

Among a number of reasons the Covid-19 caseload might be vastly underreported in many countries are stigma, an inability to get tested and the fact that the threshold for reacting to any disease is high.

“Every time somebody says, ‘I’m so glad Africa has been spared,’ my toes just curl,” said Maysoon Dahab, an infectious disease epidemiologist at King’s College London.

Credit…Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

An expert coronavirus panel in India has recommended authorizing the vaccine created by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, as well as a local candidate, for emergency use.

The agency in charge of licensing and regulating pharmaceuticals, the DrugIndi Controller General, has the final say on whether to authorize the vaccines, which would jump start an inoculation program for the country’s 1.3 billion people. The agency is expected to announce its decision on Sunday.

India has reported more than 10.3 million infections, the second highest number after the United States, and its related deaths are over 149,000, the world’s third-highest toll, after the United States and Brazil. The virus and a government lockdown devastated India’s economy and severely disrupted education.

The advisory committee recommended authorizing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which has already been approved in the United Kingdom and Argentina, “subject to multiple regulatory conditionalities,” according to a statement released late Saturday.

The Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, signed a pact with AstraZeneca to make one billion doses of its vaccine for low-and-middle-income countries. The second vaccine was developed and financed by the Indian government and a Hyderabad-based company, Bharat Biotech.

Although Bharat Biotech hasn’t yet published efficacy data, the advisory committee recommended authorizing its vaccine’s use as a matter of public interest and “in the context of infection by mutant strains,” the statement said.

Dr. Randeep Guleria, the head of India’s most prestigious research hospital, told a local television network on Saturday that authorizing two vaccines at once would enable India to better protect itself against the more transmissible variant of the virus first identified in Britain.

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French Police Shut Down Illegal Rave

The police broke up a New Year’s party in Lieuron, France, that brazenly flouted the country’s coronavirus restrictions. About 2,500 people attended the 36-hour rave, held in two warehouses.

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The police broke up a New Year’s party in Lieuron, France, that brazenly flouted the country’s coronavirus restrictions. About 2,500 people attended the 36-hour rave, held in two warehouses.CreditCredit…Jean-Francois Monier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The illegal New Year’s Eve party took place in two disused warehouses that had been turned into giant nightclubs, lasted for about 36 hours and drew some 2,500 people from across France — in defiance of a national Covid-19 curfew and of strict restrictions on public gatherings.

On Saturday morning, after some unsuccessful attempts, the French police finally put an end to the rave near the northwestern city of Rennes, in Brittany, after the event had made headlines for brazenly challenging limits imposed by the government.

Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said that more than 1,600 revelers were fined for breaking the restrictions. Local authorities added that five people were put in custody as part of an investigation into the illegal party.

Shortly after the party kicked off on Thursday night, with techno music blaring from the warehouses, the police tried to halt it. But the authorities said that police officers were outnumbered by the revelers, who clashed with the officers, slightly injuring three of them and setting one of their cars on fire.

The police had to wait for reinforcements before cracking down on the revelers. Local authorities said that the music was switched off early on Saturday morning and that the party was finally stopped at 10:15 a.m., after many partygoers had already left the site.

Philippe Astruc, the prosecutor for the Ille-et-Vilaine region, where the party took place, said that the police, as part of a search to identify the organizers, had found some money that appeared to be part of the proceeds from the event, as well as some drugs.

Noting significant risks of the spread of the coronavirus, regional health authorities in Brittany called on revelers to undergo tests and quarantine immediately for seven days.

“They have put their lives in danger, their health, they must now protect those around them,” Emmanuel Berthier, the Ille-et-Vilaine prefect, said during a news conference on Saturday.

France is experiencing a sustained second wave of the pandemic that has forced the government to delay plans to relax some Covid-19 restrictions. About 20,000 new coronavirus cases were recorded on Thursday and on Friday.

Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Until March, when everything started tasting like cardboard, Katherine Hansen had such a keen sense of smell that she could recreate almost any restaurant dish at home without the recipe, just by recalling the odors.

Then the coronavirus arrived. One of Ms. Hansen’s first symptoms was a loss of smell, and then of taste. Ms. Hansen still cannot taste food, and says she can’t even tolerate chewing it. Now she lives mostly on soups and shakes.

“I’m like someone who loses their eyesight as an adult,” said Ms. Hansen, a real estate agent who lives outside Seattle. “They know what something should look like. I know what it should taste like, but I can’t get there.”

A diminished sense of smell, called anosmia, is recognized as one of the telltale symptoms of Covid-19, often the first, and sometimes the only one. Frequently accompanied by an inability to taste, anosmia occurs abruptly and dramatically in Covid, almost as if a switch has been flipped.

Most patients regain their senses of smell and taste after they recover, usually within weeks. But in a minority of patients like Ms. Hansen, the loss persists, and doctors cannot say when or if the senses will return.

Scientists know little about what causes anosmia or how to cure it. But cases are piling up as the coronavirus sweeps across the world; by some estimates, the pandemic may leave millions with a permanent loss of smell and taste. The prospect has set off an urgent scramble among researchers to learn more about why patients are losing these senses, and how to help them.

Many sufferers describe the condition as extremely upsetting, even debilitating, all the more so because it is invisible to others.

“I feel alien from myself,” one sufferer wrote in Facebook group for Covid patients with anosmia. “It’s also kind of a loneliness in the world. Like a part of me is missing, as I can no longer smell and experience the emotions of everyday basic living.”

Loss of smell is a risk factor for anxiety and depression, so the implications of widespread anosmia deeply trouble mental health experts. Researchers have found that olfactory dysfunction often precedes social deficits in schizophrenia, and social withdrawal even in healthy individuals.

And many people who can’t smell will lose their appetites, putting them at risk of nutritional deficits and unintended weight loss.

“From a public health perspective, this is really important,” Dr. Datta said. “If you think worldwide about the number of people with Covid, even if only 10 percent have a more prolonged smell loss, we’re talking about potentially millions of people.”

Credit…Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In November, more than half a million Americans came to Mexico — of those, almost 50,000 arrived at Mexico City’s airport, according to official figures, less than half the number of U.S. visitors who arrived in November last year, but a surge from the paltry 4,000 who came in April, when much of Mexico was shut down. Since then, numbers have steadily ticked up: From June to August, U.S. visitors in Mexico more than doubled.

It’s unclear how many are visiting and how many are permanently relocating — or even just taking advantage of the six-month tourist visa that Americans are granted on arrival. Some may be Mexicans who also have American passports and are visiting family.

But on the streets of Mexico City’s hipster neighborhoods these days, it sometimes seems as if English has become the official language.

The surge in visitors, however, comes as Mexico City enters a critical phase of the pandemic; cases have increased, and hospitals are stretched so thin that many sick people are staying home. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also advised Americans to avoid all travel to Mexico.

Mexico City’s health care system “is basically overwhelmed,” Xavier Tello, a Mexico City health policy analyst, said via WhatsApp message. “The worst is yet to come.”

In mid-December, the authorities escalated Mexico City’s alert system to the highest level, which requires an immediate shutdown of all but essential businesses. But the lockdown came weeks after numbers had already reached the critical level of contagion, according to the government’s own figures.

As in much of the world, the most affluent are often the least affected. In Roma Norte, on one street corner, working-class Mexicans lined up for hours to buy oxygen tanks for their relatives who were sick at home with Covid-19, while just blocks away well-off young people lined up for croissants.

Credit…Bradley Secker for The New York Times

Turkey slammed its doors to travelers from Britain on Friday, saying that it had found 15 infections with the new, more transmissible variant of the virus that first emerged in England. All were among recent arrivals from the United Kingdom.

Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, issued a statement saying that the 15 people infected with the variant were in isolation and that their contacts were being traced and placed under quarantine. In countrywide checks, the statement said, the virus had not been detected in anyone other than travelers who arrived from Britain.

The finding brings the number of countries that have detected the variant to at least 33 since Britain announced finding it on Dec. 8, and the number of countries barring travelers arriving from Britain to more than 40. Some countries are also imposing restrictions on travelers, including U.S. citizens, who in recent weeks visited the countries where the variant has been detected.

The Philippines expanded restrictions on travelers from Britain and 18 other countries, adding the United States after a third state, Florida, reported an infection involving the variant. Many countries have already restricted travel from the United States because of its staggering number of infections — the most in the world.

California and Colorado have also found cases involving the variant. None of those infected in the United States had traveled recently, so the new strain is clearly circulating, though at unknown levels.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7., has not been known to lead to more severe cases of Covid-19, but its circulation is likely to portend more infections and more hospitalizations at a time when many countries are already battling surges in caseloads and anticipating more from holiday gatherings and travel.

The list of countries that have identified infections with the variant has been growing rapidly, and as of Friday includes — besides the United States, Britain and Turkey — Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as part of a unified China.

In South Africa, a similar version of the virus has emerged, sharing one of the mutations seen in B.1.1.7., according to scientists who detected it. That variant, known as 501.V2, has been found in up to 90 percent of the samples whose genetic sequences have been analyzed in South Africa since mid-November.

The British authorities said they have detected two cases of the variant identified in South Africa. In both cases, the infected people had been in contact with people who had traveled to Britain from South Africa in recent weeks. Switzerland, Finland, Australia, Zambia and France have also detected the variant.

And on Dec. 24, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, announced the discovery of yet another variant, this one in Nigeria, called B.1.207.

Credit…Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

A more contagious form of the coronavirus is churning in the United States.

First identified in Britain, the variant already accounts for more than 60 percent of new coronavirus cases in London and its neighboring areas, and there’s worry the variant could further exacerbate cases in the U.S. and place greater strain on an already strained health care system.

A variant that spreads more easily also means that people will need to religiously adhere to precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, hand hygiene and improved ventilation — unwelcome news to many Americans already chafing against restrictions.

We asked experts to weigh in on the evolving research into this new version of the coronavirus. Here’s what they had to say.

The new variant seems to spread more easily between people.

The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, seems to infect more people than earlier versions of the coronavirus, even when the environments are the same.

Scientists initially estimated that the new variant was 70 percent more transmissible, but a recent modeling study pegged that number at 56 percent. Once researchers sift through all the data, it’s possible that the variant will turn out to be just 10 to 20 percent more transmissible, said Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Even so, Dr. Bedford said, it is likely to catch on rapidly and become the predominant form in the United States by March.

The variant behaves like earlier versions.

So far, at least, the variant does not seem to make people any sicker or lead to more deaths. Still, there is cause for concern: A variant that is more transmissible will increase the death toll simply because it will spread faster and infect more people.

The routes of transmission — by large and small droplets, and tiny aerosolized particles adrift in crowded indoor spaces — have not changed.

Infection with the new variant may increase the amount of virus in the body.

Some preliminary evidence from Britain suggests that people infected with the new variant tend to carry greater amounts of the virus in their noses and throats than those infected with previous versions.

That finding offers one possible explanation for why the new variant spreads more easily: The more virus that infected people harbor in their noses and throats, the more they expel into the air and onto surfaces when they breathe, talk, sing, cough or sneeze.

With previous versions of the virus, contact tracing suggested that about 10 percent of people who have close contact with an infected person — within six feet for at least 15 minutes — inhaled enough virus to become infected.

“With the variant, we might expect 15 percent of those,” Dr. Bedford said. “Currently risky activities become more risky.”

Scientists are still learning how the mutations have changed the virus.

Each infected person offers opportunities for the virus to mutate as it multiplies. With more than 83 million people infected worldwide, the coronavirus is amassing mutations faster than scientists expected at the start of the pandemic.

The vast majority of mutations provide no advantage to the virus and die out. But mutations that improve the virus’s fitness or transmissibility have a greater chance to catch on.

At least one of the 17 new mutations in the variant contributes to its greater contagiousness. The mechanism is not yet known. Some data suggest that the new variant may bind more tightly to a protein on the surface of human cells, allowing it to more readily infect them.

Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government, said it’s important to look at evidence “as preliminary and accumulating.”

But one thing is for sure, mitigation efforts will need to remain a priority.

“We need to be much more careful over all, and look at the gaps in our mitigation measures,” said Dr. Cevik said.

Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

For months and months, life in Taiwan has been, in a word, normal. People have packed pro ball games, attended cello concerts and thronged night markets. Its Covid-19 death toll can be counted on two hands.

It is the kind of success that has created a sinking feeling in the stomachs of many residents: How much longer can the island’s good fortune last?

The high walls have kept the island from being deluged with infections, but they risk isolating Taiwan economically and politically if the rest of the world relaxes its defenses as vaccinations get underway.

Japan and South Korea, two other Asian democracies praised for their virus responses, are now grappling with large flare-ups of new infections.

For Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s health minister and head of its epidemic command center, success is all the more reason not to waver on the government’s strategy. The island has been sealed off to most visitors since March. People who are allowed to enter still have to quarantine under tight watch for two weeks.

The government is not likely to budge on those policies until there are vaccines that are a proven, lasting weapon against the virus, Mr. Chen said in an interview. Taiwan will not be like one of those places, he suggested, that eased lockdowns under public pressure only to have to tighten them again later.

Taiwan has already held fast to its entry restrictions and quarantines for much longer than many governments could without facing a big public backlash. The island’s economy has slowed along with the world’s during the pandemic but it continues to grow at a decent clip.

“It’s remarkable that Taiwan has held the line for so long,” said C. Jason Wang, an associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. But even if the island vaccinates its population by the middle of 2021, “then you’ve still got six months to go,” he said. “It’s really difficult to keep this up for another six months.”

Currently, Taiwan expects to begin receiving vaccine doses as early as March.

“We came up with many of our policies when there were a few million infections around the world,” said Chan Chang-chuan, a professor at the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University. “But now there are tens of millions, and we’re heading toward a hundred million. It’s a whole different stage.”

Credit…Amanda Mustard for The New York Times

BANGKOK — Of all the senses, taste, inextricably linked to smell to awaken flavors, is the perhaps most evocative in its ability to conjure memories of time and place. I am fortunate to have roamed the world, both for work and play, and my kitchen holds the bounty of this wandering, letting me relive a globe-trotting that has halted with the pandemic.

My freezer is packed with sumac from Istanbul, Sichuan peppercorn from Chengdu and chai masala from Jodhpur. The cupboard has orange flower water from Malta, sardines from Portugal, hot sauce from Belize and first flush tea from Sri Lanka.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the plenitude of Thailand, a country of 70 million people who can enjoy multiple types of eggplant and innumerable varieties of shrimp paste.

If we cannot physically travel, at least my family can do so with each meal, and we are lucky to be able to explore continents at the table.

As we eat, experiences are conjured up: The oysters slurped with green Tabasco at a port town in Namibia; the tiny skewered octopus stuffed with quail eggs at a Kyoto market; the noodles hand pulled by Uighur Muslims living in exile in Kazakhstan after escaping repression in China; the reindeer and cheese soup on an island near Helsinki, when the cold rain meant nothing but minced reindeer and hot cheese would sate us.

For work, too, food creates bonds that transcend language and custom. Being a journalist means constantly intruding, walking into someone’s life and demanding sensitive personal data. How did your wife die? When did you have an abortion? What is your religion? Why do you hate your neighbor so much?

Sustenance, during these meetings, can serve as a peace offering.

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