The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co will help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under a highly unusual deal, brokered by the White House. The move could substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus are taking hold in the United States.
President Biden is expected to announce the arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, on Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials, who confirmed the arrangement on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that has not yet been made public. It comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Officials described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic,” and said it harkens back to Mr. Biden’s vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns waged during World War II.
According to one official involved, the administration has been scouring the manufacturing landscape for weeks, ever since it became evident that Johnson & Johnson’s was running behind on its manufacturing. But just how quickly Merck will be able to ramp up is unclear. It will take months for the company to be able to convert its facilities to manufacture and package a vaccine that it did not invent.
Under the agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which unlike the other two vaccines that have emergency approval in the U.S. requires only one shot.
One facility will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance” — the vaccine itself. Officials hope that by the end of the year, the arrangement will double the capacity of what Johnson & Johnson’s capacity could manufacture on its own — perhaps bringing the total number of doses to as many as one billion.
Officials are not identifying the facilities involved for security reasons, one said.
The president is invoking the Defense Production Act to help Merck retrofit its facilities to be able to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, one of the officials said. The company will be able to start the fill-finish process in about two months, this official said, and it will take longer than that to ramp up actual production of the vaccine itself.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine joins two others — one made by Pfizer BioNTech, the other by Moderna — that already have emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines performed slightly better in clinical trials, all are considered safe and effective and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has two advantages: it requires only one shot, and studies show it may curb spread of the virus.
Those earlier vaccines use a new technology called mRNA that needs freezers for long-term storage. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which uses viruses to deliver genes into cells, can keep for three months at normal refrigeration temperatures, making it easier to distribute and easier for pharmacies and clinics to stock.
In just a matter of weeks, two variants of the coronavirus have become so familiar that you can hear their inscrutable alphanumeric names regularly uttered on television news.
B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, has demonstrated the power to spread far and fast. In South Africa, a mutant called B.1.351 can dodge antibodies, blunting the effectiveness of some vaccines.
Scientists have also had their eye on a third concerning variant, which arose in Brazil, called P.1. Research has been slower on P.1 since its discovery in late December, leaving scientists unsure how much to worry.
“I’ve been holding my breath,” said Bronwyn MacInnis, an epidemiologist at the Broad Institute.
Now, three studies offer a sobering history of P.1’s meteoric rise in the Amazonian city of Manaus. It most likely arose there in November and then fueled a surge in coronavirus cases. It came to dominate the city partly because of an increased contagiousness, the research found.
But it also gained the ability to infect some people who had immunity from previous bouts of Covid-19. And laboratory experiments suggest that P.1 could weaken the protective effect of a Chinese vaccine now in use in Brazil.
The studies have yet to be published in scientific journals. Their authors caution that findings on cells in laboratories do not always translate to the real world and that they’ve only begun to understand P.1’s behavior.
“The findings apply to Manaus, but I don’t know if they apply to other places,” said Nuno Faria, a virologist at Imperial College London who helped lead much of the new research.
But even with the mysteries that remain around P.1, experts say that it is a variant to take seriously. “It’s right to be worried about P.1, and this data gives us the reason why,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
P.1 is now spreading across the rest of Brazil and has been found in 24 other countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded six cases in five states: Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
To reduce the risks of P.1 outbreaks and reinfections, Dr. Faria said it was important to double down on every measure we have to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Masks and social distancing can work against P.1. And vaccination can help drive down its transmission and protect those who do get infected from severe disease.
“The ultimate message is that you need to step up all the vaccination efforts as soon as possible,” he said. “You need to be one step ahead of the virus.”
In most parts of the United States, getting a coronavirus vaccine can feel like trying to win the lottery. People scour the internet for appointments under complex eligibility standards that vary from state to state, and even county to county.
In Indiana and Kentucky, anyone over 60 can get vaccinated, but you have to be 65 or 70 almost everywhere else. About 18 states are offering shots to grocery workers, and 32 are vaccinating teachers.
Then there is Gila County, Ariz., where any resident over 18 can walk into a clinic without an appointment and get a vaccine.
“The whole process is incredibly easy,” said Frank Struck, 24, an electrician and maintenance worker who got inoculated at a hospital in Globe, a town in the county, about 90 miles east of Phoenix. “No bureaucracy, no crazy lines — you just go in, get the shot and come out with peace of mind.”
Gila County started off with a set of qualifying standards as well. But it has been so successful at vaccinating its residents that it is now one of the first places in the United States to open eligibility to the general population.
During a pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 209 county residents, many people in the county of 54,000 people have welcomed the broader availability of the vaccines, a boon that follows a harrowing surge in hospitalizations around the start of the year. The expanded vaccination campaign has coincided over the past two weeks with a 52 percent plunge in new cases.
Health officials and elected leaders warn that big challenges persist in Gila County, in part because, in a county where anybody can get the vaccine, not everybody wants it.
About 28 percent of county residents have received at least one dose so far, compared with the nationwide level of 14 percent, according to local health officials. Rhonda Mason, the chief nursing officer at the hospital in Globe, said the challenge ahead was to overcome misinformation and skepticism.
Just over a year after the first cases of the coronavirus were discovered in the Czech Republic, the country is struggling with a surge in new cases that has left its health care system teetering, raised the death rate to one of the highest in the world and prompted a lockdown.
The Czech Republic reached 20,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths late last month, and its death rate per million inhabitants is among the highest in the world.
Even as many neighboring nations have seen a steady drop in new cases in recent weeks, Czech cases have climbed steadily, and the country entered a new national lockdown this week.
All schools are closed, residents are not allowed to leave their districts, and masks are mandatory. Thousands of police officers have been deployed to enforce the restrictions, with hundreds of checkpoints across the country. The government has said that it will call in the army if necessary for the initial three weeks.
But health experts say that the measures will not be enough to flatten the explosion of new cases.
Jan Trnka, a biochemist at Charles University in Prague, said the restrictions accounted for only a small number of the daily contacts that people have.
“I consider the most important measures those that haven’t been put in place,” he told Czech public radio. “That is to limit contacts at work, especially in industry.”
The government also approved a plan this week to require mass testing of workplaces with more than 250 employees, starting Wednesday. The measure will include companies with at least 50 employees by the end of the week.
Like much of the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic began its vaccination program late last year, but only about 3 percent of the population has received a shot. That is one of the lowest rates in the European Union.
Other nations have even started to help. Israel donated around 5,000 shots, France gave 100,000 and Germany agreed to pass 15,000 doses to regions in the Czech Republic near the border between the two countries, which have been among the most severely affected by the latest surge.
The Czech president, Milos Zeman, has also asked President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for help, and deliveries of the Sputnik vaccine “should arrive shortly,” Mr. Zeman said this week.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic said on Sunday that his country could begin using the Russian shots even without approval by the European Medicines Agency, which vets vaccines for the European Union.
Hana de Goeij and
Tens of thousands of students walked into classrooms in Chicago public schools on Monday for the first time in nearly a year. Restaurants in Massachusetts were allowed to operate without capacity limits, and venues like roller skating rinks and movie theaters in most of the state opened with fewer restrictions. And South Carolina erased its limits on large gatherings.
Across the country, the first day of March brought a wave of reopenings and liftings of pandemic restrictions, signs that more Americans were tentatively emerging from months of isolation, even if not everyone agrees that the time is ripe.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism: Vaccinations have increased significantly in recent weeks, and daily reports of new coronavirus cases have fallen across the United States from their January peaks.
In Kentucky, all but a handful of school districts are now offering in-person classes, while the state races to vaccinate teachers as quickly as possible. Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters last week that the state’s falling infection statistics showed that immunizations were beginning to make an impact.
“It means vaccinations work,” he said. “We’re already seeing it. We’re seeing it in these numbers. It’s a really positive sign.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for Covid-19, said at a news briefing on Monday that for small groups of people who have all been fully vaccinated, there was a low risk in gathering together at home. Activities beyond that, he said, would depend on data, modeling and “good clinical common sense,” adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon have guidance for what vaccinated people could safely do.
The positive signs come with caveats. Though the national statistics have improved drastically since January, they have plateaued in the last week or so, and the United States is still reporting more than 65,000 new cases a day on average — comparable to the peak of last summer’s surge, according to a New York Times database. The country is still averaging about 2,000 deaths per day, though deaths are a lagging indicator because it can take weeks for patients to die.
More contagious variants of the virus are circulating in the country, with the potential to push case counts upward again. Testing has fallen 30 percent in recent weeks, leaving experts worried about how quickly new outbreaks will be known. And millions of Americans are still waiting to be vaccinated.
Given all that, some experts worry that the reopenings are coming a bit too soon.
“We’re, hopefully, in between what I hope will be the last big wave, and the beginning of the period where I hope Covid will become very uncommon,” said Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “But we don’t know that. I’ve been advocating for us to just hang tight for four to six more weeks.”
The director of the C.D.C., Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at the briefing on Monday that she was “really worried” about the rollbacks of restrictions in some states. She cautioned that with the decline in cases “stalling” and with variants spreading, “we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”
And the plateauing case levels “must be taken extremely seriously,” Dr. Walensky warned at a briefing last week. She added: “I know people are tired; they want to get back to life, to normal. But we’re not there yet.”
After some counties in Washington State allowed movie theaters to reopen, Nick Butcher, 36, made up for lost time by attending screenings of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for three straight nights. He bought some M&Ms at the concession stand, sat distanced from others in the audience, and said he felt as though things were almost back to normal.
“I’m actually getting optimistic, over all,” said Mr. Butcher, a software engineer at Microsoft who recently recovered from a case of Covid-19, as did several relatives. “This week is one of the first times I’ve gone into my office almost since the pandemic started.”
Before the University of Idaho welcomed students back to campus last fall, it spent $90,000 installing temperature-scanning stations, which look like airport metal detectors, in front of its dining and athletic facilities in Moscow, Idaho. When the system detects a student walking through with an unusually high temperature, the student is asked to leave and get tested for the coronavirus.
But so far, the fever scanners, which register skin temperature, have flagged fewer than 10 people out of the 9,000 students living on or near campus. Even then, university administrators could not say whether the technology had been effective because they have not tracked students detected with fevers to see if they went on to get tested.
The University of Idaho is one of hundreds of colleges and universities that adopted fever scanners, symptom checkers, wearable heart-rate monitors and other screening technologies this school year. Such tools often cost less than a more validated health intervention: frequent virus testing of all students. They also help colleges showcase their pandemic safety efforts.
But the struggle at many colleges to keep the virus at bay has raised questions about the usefulness of the technologies. According to a New York Times database, there have been more than 530,000 virus cases on campuses since the start of the pandemic.
One problem is that temperature scanners and symptom-checking apps cannot catch the estimated 40 percent of people with the coronavirus who do not have symptoms but are still infectious. Temperature scanners can also be wildly inaccurate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that such symptom-based screening has only “limited effectiveness.”
The schools have a hard time saying whether — or how well — the devices have worked. Many universities and colleges are not rigorously studying effectiveness.
More than 100 schools are using a free symptom-checking app, CampusClear, that can permit students to enter campus buildings. Others are asking students to wear symptom-monitoring devices that can continuously track vital signs like skin temperature.
Administrators at Idaho and other universities said their schools were using the technology, along with policies like social distancing, as part of larger campus efforts to hinder the virus. Some said it was important for their schools to deploy the screening tools even if they were only moderately useful.
At the very least, they said, using services like daily symptom-checking apps may reassure students and remind them to be vigilant about other measures, like mask wearing.
The books that Americans cooked from during 2020 will stand as cultural artifacts of the year when a virus forced an entire nation into the kitchen.
The pandemic has been good to cookbooks. Overall sales jumped 17 percent from 2019, according to figures from NPD BookScan, which tracks about 85 percent of book sales in the United States.
Some of the smash hits were predictable. The world domination of Joanna Gaines, the queen of shiplap, continued. The second volume of her hugely popular “Magnolia Table” cookbook franchise sailed to the top of the New York Times list of the best-selling cookbooks in 2020. Ina Garten, the cooking doyenne from the Hamptons, landed the second spot with “Modern Comfort Food,” followed by “The Happy in a Hurry Cookbook,” by the “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy and his wife, Kathy.
But the stir-crazy year upended the way people cook and think about food in fundamental ways.
One of the year’s 10 best-selling cookbooks on a list complied by BookScan offered 600 air-fryer recipes, owing as much to the appliance’s ability to crisp up takeout French fries as it does to its popularity with the Trader Joe’s set, who made it through the year by heating up vegetarian egg rolls and mac-and-cheese bites. It sold more than 135,000 copies.
By contrast, 30,000 copies may not sound like much, but those sales figures were big for “Cool Beans” by Joe Yonan, a treatise whose own editor predicted “would never set the world on fire.”
Everyday cooks went in search of new cuisines and projects to break up the routine. Practiced cooks who might have spent a Saturday afternoon before the pandemic hand-rolling pasta sought recipes that would help keep weeknight cooking from becoming a grind.
Plenty of people simply needed help getting any meal on the table, which drove the popularity of general cookbooks. That category was the largest of cookbooks bought in 2020, according to BookScan. Sales showed a 127 percent increase over 2019.
And underscoring the great American food dichotomy, both dessert and diet books sold well.
Scientists and doctors who study infectious disease in children largely agreed, in a recent New York Times survey about school openings, that elementary school students should be able to attend in-person school now. With safety measures like masking and opening windows, the benefits outweigh the risks, the majority of the 175 respondents said.
They gave The Times comments on key topics, including the risks to children of being out of school; the risks to teachers of being in school; whether vaccines are necessary before opening schools; how to achieve distance in crowded classrooms; what kind of ventilation is needed; and whether their own children’s school districts got it right.
In addition to their daily work on Covid-19, most of the experts had school-aged children themselves, half of whom were attending in-person school.
They also discussed whether the new variants could change even the best-laid school opening plans. “There will be a lot of unknowns with novel variants,” said Pia MacDonald, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, a research group. “We need to plan to expect them and to develop strategies to manage school with these new threats.”
Most of the respondents work in academic research, and about a quarter work as health care providers. We asked them what their expertise taught them that they felt others needed to understand.
Over all, they said that data suggests that with precautions, particularly masks, the risk of in-school transmission is low for both children and adults.
New York City added workers in the food service and hotel industries to the list of people eligible for coronavirus vaccination on Monday, the same day the governors of Florida and Ohio announced expansions for eligibility in their states.
The expansions come as the supply of vaccines being distributed nationally is ramping up, and after a third vaccine, a single-shot dose from Johnson & Johnson, was authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration over the weekend. The pace of U.S. vaccinations is again accelerating, up to about 1.82 million doses per day on average, according to a New York Times database, above last month’s peak before snowstorms disrupted distribution.
In New York City, people who work in regional food banks, food pantries and “permitted home-delivered” meal programs became eligible on Monday to receive a vaccine. Hotel workers who have direct contact with guests also became eligible.
The governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, said on Monday that people 50 and older who work in K-12 schools, law enforcement or firefighting would become eligible on Wednesday. Florida was one of the first states that decided to vaccinate anyone 65 and older, even before most essential workers, which led to long lines and confusion.
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said on Monday that the state would receive more than 448,000 doses this week, including more than 96,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He said that “in response to this significant increase in the amount of vaccine coming into Ohio,” a new group of people would be eligible on Thursday to get a shot.
That group includes people with Type 1 diabetes, pregnant women and certain workers in child care and funeral services, as well as law enforcement and corrections officers.
To stay ahead of more contagious and possibly more deadly virus variants, states have been racing to ramp up vaccinations and expand eligibility. But they have often done so before the supply could increase quickly enough, creating shortages and making it harder for people to get vaccination appointments.
A Frontier Airlines flight from Miami to La Guardia Airport in New York was canceled on Sunday night after a large group of passengers, including several adults, refused to wear masks, the airline said.
By Monday morning, the airline was facing accusations of anti-Semitism for its treatment of the passengers, who are Hasidic Jews, as well as demands for an investigation from the Anti-Defamation League of New York and other groups. Frontier steadfastly held to its position that the passengers had refused to comply with federal rules requiring them to wear masks.
Several phone videos that have surfaced do not show the confrontation that took place between the passengers and the Frontier crew members, only the aftermath. The video footage from inside the aircraft appeared to show members of the group wearing masks. Some passengers said that the episode escalated because just one member of the group, a 15-month-old child, was not wearing one.
Videos of the passengers exiting the plane amid chaos, captured by other people on the flight, were posted on Twitter by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. In one video, a passenger says, “This is an anti-Semitic act.”
Another video showed a couple holding a maskless baby in a car seat, as children could be heard crying and a woman explained that the young children in their group, sitting in the back of the plane, had taken off their masks to eat.
A Frontier Airlines spokeswoman said in a statement that “a large group of passengers repeatedly refused to comply with the U.S. government’s federal mask mandate.”
China is aiming to vaccinate 40 percent of its population against Covid-19 by the end of June, a prominent health expert said on Monday, even as the country faces significant challenges, including residents who are reluctant.
Across China, only about 3.6 percent of the population, or about 50 million people, has had at least one dose of the vaccine, Zhong Nanshan said during an online forum of health experts from China and the United States.
“It still needs time to reach herd immunity,” Dr. Zhong, an expert who helped lead China’s Covid-19 response, said during the event, citing his conversations with officials at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The forum was sponsored by the Beijing-based Tsinghua University and the Brookings Institution, an American research organization.
China lags behind some other countries in its vaccination efforts. In the United States, 15 percent of the population has received at least one dose. In Israel, more than half the population has.
Chinese experts said at the forum that the pace of inoculation was relatively slow because the outbreak was largely under control in China and residents were therefore not rushing to receive vaccines. The government has said that the supply of doses is strong. China will be able to produce 2.1 billion shots by the end of this year, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious-disease specialist in Shanghai, said during the forum.
Dr. Zhang acknowledged that the slow pace “really is a great concern for me.” He said that even if 10 million doses of vaccine were administered every day in China, it would take seven months to vaccinate about 70 percent of the population of 1.4 billion. It will require five million doses every day to reach the 40 percent goal by June, Dr. Zhang added.
The United States, by contrast, is administering about 1.8 million doses per day, according to a New York Times database.
China has four vaccines approved for general use. Two are already being mass-produced, by the companies Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech.
China has prioritized the export of vaccines to countries including Egypt, the Philippines and Thailand, part of its efforts to win diplomatic allies and improve its global image.
In other developments worldwide:
Turkey began easing some pandemic restrictions on Tuesday, allowing restaurants to reopen, removing curfews and resuming some in-person schooling under a “normalization” process based on case numbers in each province. The easing came a day after Turkey announced economic growth of 1.8 percent in 2020, making it one of the few countries whose economies did not contract during the pandemic.
Albee Zhang contributed research.