New Variant in South Africa Displays a ‘Jump in Evolution’
It’s too early to say how effective vaccines will be against the variant. Britain will bar flights from six African countries. Here’s the latest on Covid.,
JOHANNESBURG — A concerning new variant of the coronavirus, whose mutations evidence a “big jump in evolution,” is driving a spike in new Covid-19 infections in South Africa, scientists said on Thursday.
In the last 36 hours after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng province, scientists detected the B1.1.529 variant. So far, 22 positive cases have been identified in South Africa, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Since the onset of the pandemic, a number of variants have emerged. One underlying concern about new variants is whether they will stymie progress against the pandemic or whether they will limit the vaccine’s effectiveness. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization technical team on Friday, where authorities will assign a letter of the Greek alphabet to this one.
Botswana’s health ministry confirmed in a statement that four cases of the new variant were detected in people who were all fully vaccinated. All four were tested before their planned travel. One sample was also detected in Hong Kong, carried by a traveler from South Africa, South African scientists said.
With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises fears that it could be highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm early.
“This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
The B1.1.529 variant has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, said Mr. de Oliveira. On the ACE2 receptor — the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells — the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three, the Delta variant has two, said Mr. de Oliveira.
Displaying mutations that might resist neutralization, scientists are also still unclear how effective existing vaccines will be against the new variant. The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” said Mr. Lessells.
The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those ages between 18 and 34 are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s minister of health.
While cases of the new variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the capital Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, said Mr. Phaahla.
Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.
Britain will temporarily ban flights from six African countries starting on Friday, as the nation’s health ministry investigates a new variant of the coronavirus.
The nation’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, did not name the countries in a tweet on Thursday. But he said that the six nations will be added to the country’s red list, which would require British travelers coming from those nations to quarantine on arrival.
“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” he said.
Earlier on Thursday, scientists in South Africa identified a concerning new variant, whose mutations evidence a “big jump in evolution.” That variant is driving a spike in new infections there.
Since the onset of the pandemic, a number of variants have emerged. One underlying concern about new variants is whether they will stymie progress against the pandemic or whether they will limit the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Only weeks ago, Britain announced that it would stop requiring any travelers to quarantine in government-designated hotels, removing the last seven countries from its “red list” for coronavirus risk.
That change ended restrictions on passengers arriving from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.
Since then, Mr. Javid said that the government would continue to reserve a number of rooms in hotels “on standby,” in case quarantine requirements needed to be reinstated.
A giant, animatronic turkey once again waddled down Central Park West at the head of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which returned on Thursday in its full, helium-filled glory.
Last holiday, the coronavirus forced officials to order a one-block long, nearly crowd-free version of the parade, which typically runs from 77th Street on the Upper West Side to Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan. The parade, which began in 1924 and is in its 95th iteration, has been canceled rarely, including during World War II.
Over 4,500 volunteers strolled along the 2.5 mile route and towed among them 15 giant helium balloons, including old favorites like Smokey Bear, and newcomers like Ada Twist, Scientist, from the popular storybook, who clocks in at 51-feet tall.
The return of such sights — of large crowds, of public joy, of celebrities on floats and beloved characters transformed into balloons — felt deeply symbolic for many who anticipated the spectacle.
“Moments of celebration are important,” said Leroy Lamar, who came with his family to see the parade from Atlanta. “And it is important that we do them together.”
Thousands rushed to book vaccination appointments in France on Thursday after the government announced that all adults were eligible for a booster shot and that health passes would no longer be valid after a certain period if they failed to get one.
France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, said at a news conference on Thursday that France was experiencing a new wave of cases that would be “stronger and longer” than the one over the summer, but that “no lockdown, no curfew, no store closures, no travel restrictions” would be enforced.
By focusing on vaccinations and social distancing measures, he said, “we are making the choice to reconcile freedom and responsibility.”
Starting this weekend, anyone age 18 and above will be able to get a booster shot, beginning five months after their second injection at the earliest, Mr. Véran said. Previously the booster shot was available only for health care workers, those at high risk of severe Covid and people 65 and above. Approximately 19 million people are affected by the new announcement, Mr. Véran said.
Some adults who have not received a booster shot within seven months of their second injection will see their passes expire, barring access to restaurants, museums, long-distance trains and other public places unless they get tested regularly, Mr. Véran said.
He said that over 400,000 vaccination appointments had been booked on Wednesday, ahead of his news conference.
About 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. But the number of new daily cases has spiked recently to about 30,000 over the past few days, according to French officials, and have reached the prime minister. The recent surge has led to the closure of 8,500 school classes, up from 4,100 last week.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, announced at the news conference that classes would no longer close if one student tests positive, but that they will require that all students continue to be tested. Only those who test negative will be able to return, he said.
Hospitalizations — mainly of unvaccinated patients — have also been increasing, according to French health authorities.
Mr. Véran also urged the French to observe social distancing rules and guidelines. He announced that starting on Friday, masks would be mandatory indoors even for establishments or events that require a health pass, and that the pass would also be required to gain access to Christmas markets.
“We must remain vigilant at all times, get back to good habits,” Mr. Veran said.
The European Medicines Agency approved on Thursday the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, bringing European governments one step closer to inoculating young children.
The recommendation of the European Union’s drug regulator will now be sent to the European Commission, the bloc’s administrative arm, for final approval, which it is expected to do swiftly. It will then be up to the national health authorities to decide if and when they will start inoculating young children.
The decision comes amid a Covid spike across the bloc. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Wednesday that European governments should accelerate their vaccination rates, consider booster shots for adults and tighten restrictions in order to avoid a “very high burden” on national health care systems. Approximately 66 percent of the European Union’s total population has been fully inoculated, according to E.C.D.C. data.
The regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 12 to 15 in May, in what the agency called “an important step forward in the fight against the pandemic.”
All 27 member nations are now inoculating adolescents, according to the E.C.D.C.
The European Commission also proposed a nine-month period of validity of coronavirus vaccinations for travelers coming from outside and inside the bloc.
“It’s good to have a booster shot after the six months have expired,” Didier Reynders, the bloc’s commissioner for justice, told reporters on Thursday, citing evidence that the immunity provided by coronavirus vaccines wanes after six months. “These three months should allow national campaigns to be set up and for citizens to actually get the booster shot.”
E.U. citizens traveling between different member countries will be required to present a vaccination certificate, proof of recovery from the virus in the past six months or a negative test.
The proposal is expected to come into force on Jan. 10, pending approval from national governments.
The commission also proposed new rules for foreigners traveling from outside the bloc: Until now, nonessential tourists from a limited number of countries could enter the European Union regardless of their vaccination status. That list is regularly updated on the basis of a number of criteria, including caseload and vaccination rates.
The commission called for removal of the safe list starting on March 1. Instead, all nonessential travelers that are vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus should be permitted to enter, regardless of where they are coming from. Children between 6 and 17 years old could come into the bloc even if they have not been inoculated, provided that they present a negative PCR test.
But the recommendation is nonbinding, and each member state can decide what regulations, including quarantines, to impose on visitors.
Thanksgiving air travel did not reach the record highs of 2019, but it was close. About 2.3 million people passed through Transportation Safety Administration checkpoints on Wednesday, more travelers than on any other day during the pandemic.
This figure was more than twice as many travelers as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year. This year’s total was about 88 percent of the travelers that flew on that same Wednesday in 2019.
Social media was abuzz with nearly equal complaints about the longest airport lines people had experienced in years and surprise that lines were so short, reinforcing the idea pandemic unpredictability persists.
Among those travelers sharing a sense of excitement about being able to visit family this Thanksgiving, was Katie Thurston of San Diego, known to some as the Bachelorette from Season 17 of that reality show.
“To go back to something that feels normal makes me feel so emotional,” she said in a telephone interview, after tweeting about her tearful reaction to landing in Seattle to visit her mother and sister and meet her baby niece for the first time.
Hundreds of airport food service workers picketed on Wednesday at San Francisco International Airport over a dispute involving health care. But contrary to some passengers’ fears — and warnings from the Southwest Airlines pilots union in August — there were no walkouts by flight attendants or pilots on Wednesday.
Amid concerns that passengers would get aggressive with flight attendants and pick fights about masks — issues throughout the pandemic — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland urged federal prosecutors to prioritize the prosecution of passengers that commit assault or other crimes on board.
Typically, the busiest days for air travel during the Thanksgiving period are the Tuesday and Wednesday before the holiday, and the Sunday after it, according to a T.S.A. spokesman.
United said that the airline expected the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be its busiest day since the pandemic began. Still, the day seemed unlikely to surpass prepandemic travel figures overall given how extraordinary that weekend was two years ago. More people flew on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019 — according to T.S.A. checkpoint data — than ever before in the agency’s 20-year history.
And travelers are unlikely to face weather delays as they try to get home.
“Sunday is pretty quiet across much of the country,” said Lara Pagano, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.
Still, Becky Esquivel, a T.S.A. officer at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, urged people to arrive at least two hours before boarding their return flights just to be safe.
The first sign I was doing my job right came when a woman on the Upper West Side recognized me as a balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Decked in a white jump suit, with Pokémon written on the front and two of the characters on the back, I headed to meet my fellow wranglers for the Pikachu balloon.
I felt funny in the garb. My doorman did not even flinch when I walked by in the early hours of dawn on Thursday. What does he think of my daily fashion choices?
The woman, on her way to snag a viewing spot, stopped me on West 81st Street.
“I’d figured you were a balloon handler based on your outfit,” she said. She said she was eager to see the Baby Yoda balloon. (“And yours,” she added, perhaps insincerely).
My team had more volunteers than lines to steer Pikachu. So I thought I would be on the sidelines, getting the crowd energized. By some accident of fate — I often describe myself the Forrest Gump of The New York Times thanks to my random career opportunities — I was near the front of the balloon when we got the signal to get ready.
I ended up steering the giant cartoon character until its final destination: the deflation station on 40th Street and Seventh Avenue. (Pro tip: Consider watching the parade from there! From 36th Street up, it felt like an abandoned amusement park.)
The journey was like an intense workout. Towing the line requires some strength and coordination as you respond to shouts to lower or raise the balloon. We also sometimes had to quicken our pace to close the gap between us and the float ahead. I can’t imagine doing this in windy weather.
I’ve done the NYC marathon and that day strikes me as New York at its best. People cheering strangers on. And it is the only day in the city when someone could hand me a cup of water, a piece of candy or a slice of fruit and I would take it and not think twice about eating it. Today was similar. This will be something I look back on with fondness.
A handful of people lingered around the counter in Andy’s Deli on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue, ordering bagels and coffee or picking up last-minute holiday supplies as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rolled on nearby.
Nick Spathis and his staff took orders and rang up purchases from police officers and parade volunteers. Locals trickled in. Across the street, Columbus Avenue was packed.
Last year, Andy’s was closed, the first time Mr. Spathis, who’s owned the business for 33 years, was not open on Thanksgiving. And while this year Mr. Spathis opened at 5 a.m., the morning was quiet.
“It’s not surprising to me,” he said, after handing some coffees to wranglers for the Pillsbury Doughboy balloon. “With the pandemic, everything is slow.”
“It’s getting along little by little,” he added later. “It might take another year.”
Businesses and entrepreneurs along Columbus Avenue, parallel to the parade route along Central Park West, had mixed reactions to whether the parade’s comeback and the foot traffic brought with it an economic boost. For some, the morning yawned on no differently from other mornings. For others, its return brought a high volume of customers.
A few blocks away, Mast Market, which opened one week ago, had its first lull in the morning at about 9:30. The shop normally opened a half-hour earlier than normal.
“There were enough people lined up outside peering in,” Robin Mates, the market’s manager, said. “It’s been nonstop.”
Banca Grucan stood on Columbus, yelling as she hawked balloons, including a Buzz Lightyear one.
Originally from Ecuador, Ms. Grucan has been selling her wares on Thanksgiving morning for 12 years. She had barely sold 20 balloons by about 10 a.m., she said in Spanish, less than half of what she sold in years past.
For the past 40 years, Thomas Johnson has trekked from Connecticut to sell turkey hats on Thanksgiving. Last year, was the first he did not make the yearly pilgrimage. “It was depressing,” Mr. Johnson, 62, said.
On Thursday, Mr. Johnson was all smiles as he stood on the corner of 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue.
“Turkey hats,” he shouted, gobbling like a turkey with his signature headgear.
One happy customer called out to him from the street: “My gobbling friend you got me looking good on Facebook — thank you so much!”
Business was so brisk he could barely keep up with demand. By early morning, he had sold about 100 hats and was ordering more from a supplier.
“I love it — I love it!” Mr. Johnson said, holding some turkey hats and throwing his hands up in the air. The people and the costumes bring him joy, he said. He posed for at least one photo with costumers.
“If my friends could see me now, they’d be laughing,” he added later, saying he’s a teacher. “I wear a suit and tie normally.”
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets people excited — at least judging by some of the responses I received when I posted on social media last week that I would be marching with the Pikachu balloon.
Growing up, I often watched the parade on television. I have fond memories of a Sesame Street float, a vague recollection of one with Marvel heroes and villains, and I was always in awe of the Superman balloon. (It turns out there were three. The last Man of Steel balloon made his final parade appearance in 1987.)
But as a child I never gave a second thought to what a production it must be to pull off a successful parade. A year and a half ago, I started looking for a way to participate. (I first tried to do it last year, but Covid curtailed the length of the parade, the balloons, the volunteers and the onlookers.)
I was brought into the ranks of balloon handlers — it almost feels like a whisper network, you need to know someone who knows someone — by a former colleague who had marched many times. I told her I was interested in joining in and she helped me become a volunteer on her team this year.
The sign-up process involved uploading my proof of vaccination, watching a training video in the proper care of balloon handling and more. I added a new phrase to my vocabulary: “handling bone.” That’s the device used to hold and tow the lines that ease the balloons down the parade route and, later, to the deflating area.
As a native New Yorker, I’m eager to take part in such a Big Apple experience, though it’ll be a long day, thankfully, if forecasts are correct, with mild weather. I need to check in at 7:15 a.m. and will likely not be done until after 12:30 p.m.
My one worry, as a momma’s boy, was being late to my family’s Thanksgiving lunch, a tradition which stems from a time when my sister and I worked evening shifts at The New York Times. But I dutifully visited my mother on Wednesday afternoon, asked her to keep an eye out for me on television and promised I would eat plenty when I arrived.
On Thursday, five members of the extended Dewar family stood on Central Park West at 81st Street in pastel pink and teal jumpsuits and hot pink wigs.
For nearly a decade, Raymond Dewar, the patriarch, had led them through the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But he died in 2020, the year the extravaganza was cut short because of the pandemic.
They marched on Thursday to honor Mr. Dewar, said Monique Dewar, one of his daughters.
“We are so happy to be here,” she said, standing next to family members, who were beaming under their masks. “The only problem with the mask,” she said, was “no clown makeup this year.”
The Dewars were joined by thousands of others who had to skip the parade last year.
Minutes before the kickoff, Sergeant Gabriel Vazquez of the New York City Parks Department, sat on an American spotted draft horse named Apollo, holding up an American flag.
He hadn’tridden in the parade in several years he said, but this year he couldn’t miss it.
Atop his horse, striding down the route, he said, “It’s like we are walking back toward normal.”
For a moment it seemed New York City was almost back to normal.
After the pandemic forced an attenuated, blocklong version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year, this year the iconic event was set to roar back to life, with the full complement of floats, balloons, and marching bands expected to parade on Thursday all along Central Park West to Herald Square.
And once again it kicked off on Wednesday with another tradition, known locally as “Inflation Day” — the public viewing on 72nd Street of the giant Pikachu, Papa Smurf, Smokey Bear and other balloon stars as they were filled with helium for the parade.
“Anyone wishing to see the inflation of the balloons must get off at this station,” a train driver for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said over the loudspeaker of an uptown C train as it pulled in to the 72nd Street subway station “This is where you see the balloons.”
Just up the subway stairs was another, less welcoming announcement. “Welcome to fascist New York!” an anti-vaccine demonstrator shouted repeatedly at the crowd, which included little children, parents, and veterans in wheelchairs, as they passed by on their way to view the balloons.
And as people streamed east on 71st Street, they were met by a gauntlet of people in red pinnies with “vax checker” written on their backs. The checkers asked everyone to show their identification and vaccination cards, and to put on a face mask.
On 81st Street, Diane Roberts, who works in media in Washington, D.C., was celebrating a what she called a milestone birthday a year late — she refused to say which one — with four best friends who were at last able to travel from around the country to be with her.
Just speaking about being able to see the parade brought tears to her eyes. She wasn’t bothered by the vaccine checkers, the crowd control or the necessity of masks. “It is a cloud over it but it but I still think it’s better to be here masked then not to be here at all,” she said.
A few blocks away was the Lamar family, visiting from Atlanta, Georgia, on their first family trip since the pandemic began more than 20 months ago. They were taking in a giant green dinosaur. “Moments of celebration are important,” Leroy Lamar, who runs a nonprofit organization, said. “And it is important that we do them together.”
Canada’s health regulator on Wednesday granted full approval for Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, making Canada the first nation to do so.
The decision was made after a third phase of a study showed the shot was 85 percent effective in preventing severe disease and, starting 28 days after vaccination, from death.
“Today marks the first major regulatory approval for the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine and an important moment to recognize the dedication of everyone involved in our Covid-19 vaccine development, our partners, the regulators and clinical study participants,” said Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer.
Use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States has not been as widespread as that of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, and studies have found the Johnson vaccine provides less protection than the other two. In April, use of the vaccine came to a sudden halt after U.S. health agencies called for a brief pause so they could study a rare blood-clotting disorder that emerged in six recipients.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized Johnson & Johnson booster shots last month, despite concern among the F.D.A.’s expert advisory panel that data in the company’s application was limited and wasn’t independently verified.
Some F.D.A. experts and committee members argued that recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine needed an additional shot to bolster against severe Covid-19, since that vaccine was less effective than those of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
The F.D.A. discussed data with the committee showing that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was only roughly 70 percent effective against hospitalization, compared with around 90 percent for the Moderna and Pfizer shots. But other data, including from a study of nearly nine million people in New York State, found better results from a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, including for older Americans, by offering durable protection.
Johnson & Johnson doses have been distributed abroad through Covax, the global vaccine-sharing program, in an effort to bolster immunity in poorer countries, including many in Africa.
Many of those shots have been provided through a deal reached in May, under which Johnson & Johnson agreed to sell about 200 million doses to Covax at a discounted rate. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that the United States had negotiated a deal to ship additional doses of the vaccine overseas, to help people living in conflict zones.
The tragedy at a parade in Waukesha came less than a week from one of the country’s best known events: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Concern about intentional attacks on the parade have long driven law enforcement efforts to secure the route. And New York has seen vehicle ramming turn deadly at other crowded events in recent years.
In 2017, a driver who was apparently under the influence of drugs rammed into crowded sidewalks in Times Square, killing one and injuring more than 20 people before security barricades stopped him. And, later that same year, a 29-year-old man rammed his pickup truck into pedestrian traffic along the busy West Side Highway, killing eight and injuring 11.
More recently, in September 2020, a vehicle rammed through a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting police brutality in Times Square.
But the scale of the Thanksgiving parade in New York is so large that it is difficult to draw comparisons, a law enforcement official said. The parade for years has been seen as a high-value target for extremist and terror groups.
“You can’t really take an incident that occurs at a holiday parade in a relatively small city and compare it to what we do in New York City for that event,” said John Miller, the deputy commissioner for the Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau.
The space around the parade is what is known as a “hardened route,” cordoned off from traffic by cars that block roads, sand-filled dump trucks and long gun teams, Mr. Miller said. The security measures include tools as mundane as metal barriers and as high-tech as radiation detectors fastened to the belts of police officers. And, the entire route is blanketed by the Lower and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiatives, a surveillance dragnet that overlays tactics like license plate readers and video surveillance to secure Midtown and Lower Manhattan.
“We don’t worry. We plan,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a better use of our time.”
Thousands of spectators lined the streets of New York City to watch the return of the full Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.