North Korea, Citing Pandemic, Will Skip Tokyo Summer Olympics
The country, which has a decrepit public health system, has taken stringent measures against the virus since early last year. Here’s the latest on Covid-19.,
North Korea said on Tuesday that it had decided not to participate in the 32nd Tokyo Summer Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision was made when the North’s national Olympic Committee met on March 25 in Pyongyang, where it decided a delegation would skip the Tokyo Olympics, to be held on July 23 to Aug. 8, “in order to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection,” the Sports in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a government-run website, said.
It is the first Summer Olympics that the North has skipped since it boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
North Korea, which has a decrepit public health system, has taken stringent measures against the virus since early last year, including shutting its borders. The country officially maintains that it has no Covid-19 cases, but outside health experts remain skeptical.
North Korea’s decision deprives South Korea and other nations of a rare opportunity to establish official contact with the isolated country. Officials in the South had hoped that the Olympics might provide a venue for senior delegates from both Koreas to meet to discuss issues beyond sports.
The 2018 Winter Olympics, held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, provided such an opportunity. Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, grabbed global attention when she became the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into South Korea to attend the opening ceremony.
Mr. Kim used the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics as the signal to start diplomacy after a series of nuclear and long-range missile tests. Soon, inter-Korean dialogue followed, leading to three summit meetings between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Mr. Kim also met with President Donald J. Trump three times.
But since the collapse of Mr. Kim’s diplomacy with Mr. Trump in 2019, North Korea has shunned official contact with South Korea or the United States. The pandemic has deepened its diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties amid concerns over its nuclear ambitions. North Korea launched two ballistic missiles on March 25 in its first such test in a year, in a challenge to President Biden.
The Tokyo Games, which begin in July, were originally scheduled for 2020 but were delayed by a year because of the pandemic. The Tokyo organizing committee has been scrambling to develop safety protocols to protect both participants and local residents from the virus. Concern has been running high in Japan, with big majorities saying in polls that the Games should not be held this summer.
A series of health, economic and political challenges have besieged the Games. Even as the organizers decided last month to bar international spectators, epidemiologists warn that the Olympics could become a superspreader event. Thousands of athletes and other participants will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries while much of the Japanese public remains unvaccinated.
At least six U.S. colleges and universities have announced plans in the last few days to require Covid-19 vaccinations for students who will be on campus in the fall. But many more colleges have said they would not require vaccination or would wait and see before setting a policy.
Students at Cornell University in New York, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Fort Lewis College in Colorado, Nova Southeastern University in Florida, St. Edward’s University in Texas and Roger Williams University in Rhode Island will have to be vaccinated before the fall term begins, with a few exceptions for medical, religious or other reasons.
“Covid-19 has made it very clear just how impactful and necessary it is for us to have an educational experience in person, and vaccines are our way of ensuring that we can be together for a normal fall semester,” Tom Stritikus, the president of Fort Lewis, wrote in a letter explaining the mandate.
Though most universities have been open in some capacity since the fall, campus life has been fundamentally reshaped by the virus. Quarantines, masks and mandatory testing have become part of the college experience. And when major outbreaks emerged, some schools shifted classes online or even sent students home.
The debate about whether and how to mandate vaccination is playing out on campuses across the country, as shots are becoming available to college-age adults for the first time. Some schools are rushing to offer the shots to as many current students as possible before the summer break.
But the issue of requiring vaccinations is also shaping into an ideological debate falling along political lines. Some Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, are calling vaccine requirements overreach pushed by Democrats.
A day after Nova Southeastern University, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced its policy for returning students to be vaccinated, Mr. DeSantis issued an executive order banning state and local government agencies and businesses from requiring so-called vaccine passports, or documentation proving that someone has been vaccinated against Covid-19.
The university’s president and chief executive officer, Dr. George Hanbury, said the school was caught off guard by the governor’s order.
“We’re not trying to do anything but protect our students,” Dr. Hanbury told the Times on Monday and said the university is reviewing the governor’s order and plans to follow it. The university has a wide range of health programs, and, Dr. Hanbury said, many students participate in rotations at hospitals and other health settings where they are required to be vaccinated. “So, to me it didn’t seem like it was a hard extension to require it for everybody else, especially at the advice from health professionals.”
In Ohio, where all adults became eligible for the vaccine last week, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced plans to hold on-campus vaccine clinics. Many Ohio colleges have said the vaccines will, at least for now, be encouraged but not mandatory; Cleveland State has said that students living in its dorms next fall must be vaccinated.
“While fewer of our young people get sick from Covid, the evidence clearly shows that they are significant carriers,” Mr. DeWine said. “It is a strategic move, frankly, to vaccinate them on campus before they get out in early May for the summer and scatter throughout the state and throughout the country.”
Some colleges have offered incentives to be vaccinated. Dickinson State University in North Dakota exempts vaccinated students from the campus mask mandate. Davidson College in North Carolina gives employees who are fully vaccinated a $100 bonus. Several colleges say vaccinated students will be able to skip the coronavirus testing that they require of others.
In recent weeks, the number of virus cases around the country has been increasing to what health officials consider dangerous levels, which includes the spread of new variants that, in some cases, are more contagious. As of Sunday, there have been an average of 18 percent more cases compared with two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database.
Health officials are pleading with Americans to get vaccinated and to continue taking health precautions, with the hope that the growing inoculated population will stave off another surge of cases. As of Sunday, more than 61 million Americans were fully vaccinated, and 106 million have received at least one dose, according to a Times analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country is administering an average of more than three million shots a day.
Colleges were a significant locus of coronavirus outbreaks after students returned to many campuses last fall, with more than 120,000 cases of the coronavirus to linked American colleges and universities since Jan. 1, and more than 530,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, the Times reported.
In December, a Times analysis of the 203 U.S. counties where college students compose at least 10 percent of the population found that deaths in those communities had risen faster than in the rest of the nation. Few of the victims were students; they were mainly older people living and working in those communities.
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
Walgreens has inoculated hundreds of thousands of Americans against Covid-19 this year using the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. But the pharmacy chain has not been following guidance from federal health officials about the timing of second doses.
People are supposed to get two doses, three weeks apart. Walgreens, however, separated them by four weeks because that made it faster and simpler for the company to schedule appointments.
There is no evidence that separating the doses by an extra week decreases the vaccine’s effectiveness. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a three-week gap, the agency says it is acceptable to separate the doses by up to six weeks if necessary.
But Walgreens’s decision, which it didn’t publicly announce, confused some customers and caught the attention of federal health officials. Kate Grusich, a spokeswoman for the C.D.C., said the agency had asked Walgreens to stop using a longer-than-recommended time period between doses.
The company’s vaccine-scheduling system by default schedules all second doses four weeks after the first. Doses of Moderna’s vaccine, which Walgreens is also administering, are supposed to be spaced four weeks apart. Using the same gap for both vaccines was “the easiest way to stand up the process based on our capabilities at the time,” Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens’s chief medical officer, said in an interview.
Now Walgreens is changing its system. Starting as soon as the end of the week, the pharmacy will automatically schedule people for Pfizer doses three weeks apart, Dr. Ban said.
Walgreens is one of the largest among dozens of drugstore and grocery store chains that are giving out vaccines allocated by states and via a federal program that the White House said last week would expand to 40,000 locations. Walgreens reported last week that it had given out more than eight million Covid vaccine doses, including four million in March, and expects to give out 26 million to 34 million before the end of August.
Walgreens, along with CVS, previously led an effort to vaccinate nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, during which the chain gave out Pfizer doses at facilities with visits spaced three weeks apart.
The vaccination campaign is a business opportunity for Walgreens, which is bringing in revenue from the vaccine administration fees paid by government and private payers as well as from purchases made by shoppers coming in for vaccines. The company requires people to create a Walgreens account to search online for a vaccine appointment.
Most other major pharmacies, including CVS and Rite Aid, stuck with the C.D.C.’s guidance on the timing of second doses. CVS, for example, schedules second Pfizer shots for 20 to 23 days after the first shot, said T.J. Crawford, a spokesman for the chain.
Some public health experts believe the U.S. should delay the second doses of vaccines by longer than Walgreens has been doing with the Pfizer vaccine. That way, more people can get partial protection through the first shots. Britain, for example, is delaying second shots by up to three months. Canada has begun delaying doses by up to four months.
But it was a three-week gap that underwent extensive clinical testing, and U.S. officials and Pfizer executives have not voiced support for alternate dosing schedules.
Asked about Walgreens’s scheduling, Kit Longley, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, said the safety and efficacy of the company’s vaccine had not been evaluated on dosing schedules different from the three-week gap tested in clinical trial volunteers.
All New Jersey residents 16 or older will be eligible for Covid-19 vaccination beginning on April 19, Gov. Philip D. Murphy said on Monday. It is an announcement that heeds President Biden’s call for states to speed up their timelines for all adults to be eligible, as most other states already have.
In Maryland, those 16 or older are eligible to get a shot on Tuesday at state mass vaccination sites, Gov. Larry Hogan said on Monday. On April 12, he said, all Maryland residents 16 or older will be eligible at the other vaccine providers in the state.
Mayor Muriel Bowser of the District of Columbia joined the group of leaders expanding vaccine eligibility, tweeting on Monday that all Washington, D.C. residents 16 or older will be eligible on April 19.
That leaves Oregon and Hawaii as the only states yet to announce eligibility for all adults before May 1.
The announcements come as the pace of vaccinations across the country has been steadily increasing. As of Monday, an average of more than three million people are being vaccinated each day in the United States, and about 107.5 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to a New York Times database.
But even as the rollout of vaccinations continues to pick up pace, federal health officials and public health experts have been warning that the country could face a possible fourth surge in coronavirus cases.
Last week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pleaded with Americans to “hold on a little while longer.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio will change a rule that has, for months, created a paradox in New York City’s school reopening plan: Classrooms that had been reopened to students often closed again because school buildings had to shut temporarily whenever two unrelated virus cases were detected.
The mayor announced Monday that he would alter the rule, but he did not explain how. He said the new rules will be outlined in the coming days, but did not commit to making changes this week.
The closure rule has been extremely frustrating for many parents, who have said that every day brings uncertainty about whether their children will be able to attend school the following morning. Many schools have closed multiple times and sometimes have been open for just a few days before the next closure. The rule has also been intensely disruptive for educators, who have been forced to toggle between in-person and online learning with only a few hours’ notice.
The controversy over the closure rule has highlighted the enormous difficulties and trade-offs inherent in reopening schools during the pandemic. Mayors and education leaders across the country have scrambled to find ways to return students to classrooms while experimenting with safety protocols in real time.
Closures have accelerated in recent weeks and months, as middle and high school students have returned to their buildings after months of all-remote learning. The vast majority of New York City students — roughly 700,000 out of 1 million — have chosen to learn remotely full time, which means the closure rule did not affect most families.
But the city is giving all families an opportunity to switch from remote learning to classroom instruction for the rest of the school year, so that number may shift. Some students will get full-time instruction, while others will go in a few days a week and learn from home the rest of the time, based on individual school capacity. Families have until the end of the day on Friday to switch.
In recent weeks, some epidemiologists and medical experts have told ProPublica and the education news site Chalkbeat that New York’s two-case rule was arbitrary and had led to unnecessary closures, and called on the mayor to adjust it.
“The way to beat Covid is not by closing schools excessively, but by suppressing transmission both inside and outside of schools,” Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said during a news conference on Monday.
The city’s schools have had very low virus transmission in classrooms since they began to reopen last fall. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has strenuously opposed any changes to the rule for months, arguing that the city’s schools were safe only because of the strict safety measures, including the two-case threshold.
“We can’t just say because they’re an inconvenience we don’t want them,” Mr. Mulgrew said of the guidelines during a radio interview last month.
The closure rule was settled last summer during a period of intense turmoil between City Hall and the union, at a moment when it was unclear whether Mr. de Blasio would be able to reopen schools at all. The city and union eventually agreed on a host of safety rules that cleared a path for New York to become the first large school district in America to reopen schools for all grades.
Iran’s coronavirus infection and death rates reached what amounts to a fourth wave, health officials said Monday, a few weeks after many Iranians ignored warnings against traveling and congregating for the Nowruz new year holiday.
Tehran and several other big cities were declared red zones — the worst level in the color-coded system of risk devised by the health authorities to deal with managing the scourge.
“Today we have lost control of containing the Covid-19 dragon,” said the health minister, Saeed Namaki. “It remains unclear when we will be able to lower three-digit death rates. It is an extremely difficult situation.”
The health ministry said 172 people had died and 13,890 had tested positive for the virus in the past day. The numbers are the highest in four months. The head of Tehran’s biggest cemetery said the number of dead from the virus in the capital had tripled in just a few days.
Besides Tehran, 96 other cities and towns — constituting nearly half the country — were placed in high-risk categories of red and orange zones. Officials announced new restrictions for red cities that include closures of schools and educational establishments; reduced number of people going to work; a ban on travel to and from the cities; and a cap of 15 persons at gatherings.
The recent surge in numbers follows Iran’s Nowruz celebrations in mid-March, when Iranians packed shopping areas and restaurants, held large house parties and traveled across the country. The authorities warned the public to take safety measures for the holidays but did little to enforce it.
Health officials have said that the dominant virus in Iran is now the British variant that first entered Iran from its southwestern borders with Iraq. The southwestern provinces in Iran were the first to face a new surge and were placed under lockdown but now the variant has spread across the country.
Iran has been especially hit by the pandemic, with some of the highest infection and death rates. Vaccination has been slow, entangled in politics and disinformation. Less than one percent of the population of 80 million, mostly medical workers, have been vaccinated.
The N.H.L.’s Covid-19 protocols have sidelined more than half of the Vancouver Canucks, as well as one member of the coaching staff, an extraordinary impact of the coronavirus on a sports team.
The Canucks have not played a game in nearly two weeks. At least 16 players are on the league’s protocol list after testing positive. An N.H.L. roster is typically 23 players. The protocol list is based on testing and contact tracing.
The players have reported symptoms including fever, fatigue and mild headaches, as reported by The Vancouver Province. Members of the players’ immediate families and team staff have also been affected, according to reports, and it is believed to be the Brazilian P.1 variant of Covid-19, a first in the N.H.L.
“Finally made it to the couch after two days,” one Canucks player told a local journalist.
Four games have already been postponed with more expected. The Canucks, who last played on March 24 in a home loss against the Jets, are prohibited from practicing until April 6 at the earliest and are restricted from playing games until April 8, when they are scheduled to play the Flames on the road. At press time, that game has not been canceled.
On Sunday, Jim Benning, the Canucks general manager, released a statement expressing gratitude for the well wishes from fans as well as acknowledging the organizations that have provided medical support to the club. “We hope for a return to full health as soon as possible,” the statement read. “Our focus continues to be the health of everyone involved.”
The first case of the team outbreak occurred on March 30, after forward Adam Gaudette was sent home from practice after testing positive. According to The Province, other players on the list include Jayce Hawryluk, Bo Horvat, Tyler Motte, Brandon Sutter, Tyler Myers, Thatcher Demko, Alex Edler, Quinn Hughes, Zack MacEwen, Antoine Roussel, Braden Holtby, Adam Gaudette, Travis Hamonic and Travis Boyd.
Boyd, whom the Canucks claimed off waivers from the Maple Leafs on March 22, was set to make his debut with the team on March 31. Getting “another opportunity with Vancouver was something he was really excited about,” Boyd’s agent, Ben Hankinson, said in an interview. “But more importantly probably the bigger picture is his health, everyone else’s health, the team’s health.”
— Gerald Narciso
A new coronavirus vaccine that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And it could be far easier to make.
Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same kinds of eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.
If NVD-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier nations may be able to make NVD-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.
“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
First, however, clinical trials must establish that NVD-HXP-S actually works in people. The first phase of clinical trials is to conclude in July, and the final phase will take several months more. But experiments with vaccinated animals have raised hopes for the vaccine’s prospects.
“It’s a home run for protection,” said Dr. Bruce Innes of the PATH Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access, which has coordinated the development of NVD-HXP-S. “I think it’s a world-class vaccine.”
A widely used rapid antigen test detects about half of children who are infected with the coronavirus but more than 90 percent of those with the highest viral loads, according to a new study.
“When kids are likely to be infectious, the test is pretty accurate,” said the study author Neeraj Sood, director of the Covid Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. The study, which included more than 200 children infected with the virus, was published Monday in the scientific journal PLoS One.
Rapid antigen tests are typically cheaper and faster than P.C.R. tests, which can detect the virus at very low levels, but they are less sensitive and more likely to produce false negatives. They have been evaluated primarily in adults, and one previous study, conducted at a community testing site in Massachusetts, found that they were less sensitive in children.
Dr. Sood and his colleagues partnered with Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the city of Los Angeles mayor’s office to evaluate the performance of Abbott’s BinaxNOW test, one of the rapid antigen tests that has emergency use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In late November and early December, more than 700 children who received P.C.R. tests at a coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles also took antigen tests. In total, 226 children, between the ages of 5 and 17 tested positive for the virus on the P.C.R. tests. Of those, 56.2 percent of them also tested positive on the rapid antigen test. That suggests that one-off antigen testing of children is likely to miss roughly half of those who are infected with the virus.
“You’re missing roughly one out of every two positives,” Dr. Sood said. “But not all positives are significant from a public health point of view.”
People are most likely to be infectious when they have high levels of virus in their bodies. The antigen tests caught 93.8 percent of those children with the highest levels of virus in their bodies, the researchers found. The antigen tests were also slightly better at detecting the virus in children who had coronavirus symptoms than in those who were asymptomatic.
“This is another piece of information telling us that these rapid cheap tests are good, not great,” said Michelle Mello, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “You need to test often to make up for the fact that they’re not great.”
A test might miss a student who has been infected recently and whose viral load is still low. But a follow-up test, conducted after the virus has had a chance to replicate, might catch that child.
Researchers should continue to evaluate how well these tests, and the screening programs that use them, perform when they are rolled out in real school environments, Dr. Sood said.
— Emily Anthes
An ardent advocate of protecting some of the world’s poorest countries from Covid-19 has been selected to lead the Biden administration’s vaccine diplomacy in an effort to corral wealthier nations into distributing immunizations more evenly around the globe.
Gayle Smith, a former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator and chief executive of the ONE Campaign to eradicate poverty and preventable disease, will step into the role, a new post at the State Department.
With about 62 million people in the United States already fully vaccinated from Covid-19, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made a case on Monday for ensuring that more people are protected abroad.
“We have a duty to other countries to get the virus under control here in the United States,” Mr. Blinken said at the State Department. “But soon, the United States will need to step up our work and rise to the occasion worldwide. Because again, only by stopping Covid globally, will Americans be saved for the long term.”
Mr. Blinken said other nations have been asking the United States “with growing desperation” to share its vaccine supply. “We hear you, and I promise we’re moving as fast as possible,” he said.
Ms. Smith will be focused largely on trying to coordinate the international response, even as the virus mutates and threatens to extend the pandemic. So far, the United States has contributed or pledged $4 billion to Covax, the global vaccination drive, largely bound for low- and middle-income countries, and Congress last month approved $11 billion in efforts abroad to fight the pandemic on top of billions of dollars sent to foreign nations and nongovernmental organizations in the first year of the outbreak.
Yet China, India and Russia have already outpaced the United States in providing vaccines globally, as an instrument of diplomacy. Just last month, the ONE Campaign urged Mr. Biden to share 5 percent of its doses abroad when 20 percent of Americans have been vaccinated, and increase the doses globally as more people in the United States receive theirs. According to the group, the U.S. government has purchased 453 million excess vaccine doses.
Ms. Smith, who will receive her second vaccine shot on Tuesday, helped lead the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that swept across borders in West Africa, and into the United States, while the World Health Organization was stunted by staffing cuts and other resources shortages. Officials said the U.N. agency has since fostered a stronger collaboration of scientists and health experts to better track diseases.
The Trump administration withdrew from the W.H.O. last year after it refused to blame China for failing to stop Covid-19 where it originated, but the United States has recommitted to working with the agency under President Biden.
“If the virus is moving faster than we are, it’s winning,” Ms. Smith said after Mr. Blinken announced her appointment on Monday. “But with unity of purpose, science, vigilance and leadership, we can outpace any virus.”
Mr. Blinken said there will be enough vaccines for all adults in the United States by the end of May, following the deaths of more than 550,000 Americans claimed by the virus since February 2020. More than 2.8 million people worldwide have been killed by the pandemic.
Other world leaders have begun to step up demands for wealthy nations to share vaccines with poorer countries; on Sunday, Pope Francis called the vaccines “an essential tool” to stop the pandemic.
After almost two months of near-zero local coronavirus infections, China is working to contain a small outbreak in a southwestern city near the border with Myanmar.
Ruili, a city of 210,000 people in Yunnan Province, has recorded 48 new cases in the past week, including 15 reported on Monday. It has been on lockdown since last week as officials conduct citywide virus testing. The local authorities also said they would aim to vaccinate every resident by Tuesday in an effort to contain the virus.
The city is the main crossing point on the border between Yunnan and Myanmar, which was difficult to secure even before a Feb. 1 coup by the Myanmar military set off deadly unrest. Nineteen of the 48 infected patients are Myanmar nationals, and officials in Ruili said on Saturday that the outbreak was most likely traceable to people or goods arriving from across the border.
Since largely stamping out the virus last spring, China has responded aggressively to new outbreaks with lockdowns and other measures — including in Ruili last September, after infections were found in two people from Myanmar accused of crossing the border illegally. China’s last major outbreak, which began in January in the northeast, prompted lockdowns in several cities that affected millions of people.
In other news from around the world:
Investigations have begun in France after government officials and others were accused of dining in secret restaurants in violation of coronavirus restrictions. The Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that it was looking into whether parties were organized in disregard of health restrictions and to determine who organized and participated in the events, a spokesman said.
Greece took cautious steps on Monday toward lifting restrictions in a bid to breathe life into its beleaguered economy and offer relief to residents that have been under some form of lockdown since November. Retail shops opened across much of the country, but bars and cafes remain closed. They are likely to open next month, just before a planned reopening of the country’s crucial tourism sector on May 14.
Kenya has imposed new restrictions on travelers from Britain, days after Kenya was added to a government “red list” barring entry to travelers from certain countries. Beginning April 9, anyone arriving in Kenya from a British airport will be required to quarantine for 14 days at a government-designated facility and will have to take two coronavirus tests, according to the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kenyan citizens will be exempt from the rules, as will cargo flights between the countries.
Bangladesh began a weeklong national lockdown on Monday after a stark rise in new cases. The government said it would restrict movement, and all nonessential shops and services have been shut. Domestic flights and public transportation services have also been suspended.
After Nepal was forced to close its mountain trails last year, dealing its economy a devastating blow, the tiny Himalayan country has reopened Mount Everest and its seven other 26,200-foot-plus peaks in the hope of a rebound.
For this year’s climbing season, from March to May, Nepal has granted more than 300 climbers the licenses needed to ascend the world’s tallest peak. Many of those climbers hope to reach the summit, 5.5 miles above sea level.
But as the coronavirus resurges in South Asia, the pandemic has made the already deadly climb even more hazardous. Local officials have instituted testing, mask and social-distancing requirements, stationed medical personnel at the Mount Everest Base Camp, and made plans to swoop in and pick up infected climbers. Climbers are typically greeted in Kathmandu with raucous parties thrown by expedition staffers. But not this year.
“No party. No handshake. No hug. Just ‘Namaste,'” said Lakpa Sherpa, whose agency is taking 19 climbers to Everest this spring, referring to the South Asian greeting.
Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, and one where coronavirus vaccination efforts are faltering, is taking a calculated risk. In 2019, tourism brought in $2 billion in revenue and employed about a million people. For tens of thousands of Nepalis, the three-month climbing season is the only opportunity for paid work.
The damage from last year’s closure was immense. At least 1.5 million people in the country of 30 million lost jobs or substantial income during the pandemic, according to Nepal’s National Planning Commission.
Porters who usually cart supplies and gear up the peaks for well-paying foreign climbers were forced to subsist on government handouts of rice and lentils. Expert expedition guides, many of whom are members of Nepal’s Sherpa tribe, returned to their villages in the remote mountains and grew potatoes to survive.
“We have no other options,” said Rudra Singh Tamang, the head of Nepal’s tourism department. “We need to save the mountaineering economy.”
Still, tourism ministry officials and expedition agencies acknowledge that Nepal has no clear plan to test or isolate climbers if one tests positive for the virus.
At the airport in Kathmandu, the capital, incoming travelers must show negative RT-PCR test results or provide vaccination certificates. Climbers initially had to get additional insurance, adding to the average $50,000 price tag to climb Everest, although the government has loosened that requirement.
Despite the challenges, the climbing season has drawn some high-profile mountaineers, including a Bahraini prince with a large entourage, a Qatari who wants to be the first woman from her nation to make the climb, and a former National Football League wide receiver who is aiming to become the oldest N.F.L. player to summit the world’s seven tallest peaks.
“I wanted to be there,” said the former player, Mark Pattison, 59, “in Nepal, this spring, at any cost.”