Covid Live Updates: BA.2 Accounts for Majority of Global Cases, W.H.O. Says
"The highly contagious version of Omicron driving a new surge in Europe made up about 86 percent of cases reported to the agency from Feb. 16 to Mar. 17.
The World Health Organization reported that the highly contagious Omicron subvariant, BA.2, that is helping to drive another surge of coronavirus cases in Europe is now the dominant version of Omicron around the world.
Globally, BA.2 made up about 86 percent of cases reported to the W.H.O. between Feb. 16 and March 17, the agency said in a report on Tuesday. The previously dominant subvariants, BA.1 and BA.1.1, together represented about 13 percent of the cases.
BA.2 is already dominant in the W.H.O.’s Americas region and its share of cases has been steadily increasing in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East since the end of 2021, the agency said.
When the W.H.O. last reported these figures, on March 8, it said that BA.1.1 was the dominant subvariant and that BA.2 made up 34 percent of new cases.
In the United States, about a third of new coronavirus cases are BA.2, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing on Wednesday. U.S. health officials have said they expect case numbers to rise, but that they do not anticipate a major surge caused by BA.2.
While BA.2 is more transmissible than BA.1, it has not been shown to cause more severe illness. And even though the virus has evolved considerably since vaccines against it were first developed, the inoculations still work, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the W.H.O.’s Covid-19 technical lead, said in an interview posted on the agency’s website on Tuesday.
“Our vaccines remain incredibly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against both of the sublineages of BA.1 and BA.2,” she said.
Scientists suspect that BA.2’s rapid growth is thanks to its unique mutations. In the gene for the spike protein on the surface of the virus, BA.2 has eight mutations not found in BA.1.
Although BA.2 has become the latest subvariant on many people’s minds, there are also three so-called recombinant variants that the W.H.O. has deemed noteworthy enough to be named. One of these variants, nicknamed “Deltacron,” was discovered in February but had not been officially named.
On Tuesday, the agency said that it had named the three variants — two versions of Deltacron and one that combined BA.1 and BA.2 — XD, XE and XF. There was no evidence that these recombinant variants are more transmissible or cause “more severe outcomes,” the report said.
Dr. Van Kerkhove said that, over the last two years, virus surveillance, testing and sequencing have helped countries implement public health measures that have evolved with the virus.
Her statement came the same day that a senior W.H.O. official in Europe said that cases have surged in the region because the authorities were too quick to relax pandemic restrictions.
Rather than take a gradual, measured approach, the countries “are lifting those restrictions brutally, from too much to too few,” said the official, Dr. Hans Kluge, the organization’s regional director for Europe.
Dr. Kluge added that the increase in new cases was linked to the spread of BA.2.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.
SINGAPORE — Singapore’s prime minister said Thursday that the country would lift many of its coronavirus restrictions, calling it “a decisive step forward toward living with Covid-19.”
In a speech to the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the recent surge of cases caused by a highly transmissible Omicron subvariant was now “well under control,” and cited Singapore’s high vaccination rate as part of the reason for the easing. About 95 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.
Singapore, with a population of around 5.7 million, is averaging about 9,800 cases a day, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, but relatively few cases have been severe enough to require oxygen or intensive care. Mr. Lee said that over the past two weeks, cases have been falling.
The easing of restrictions will start Tuesday. Masks will be optional outdoors and 10 people will be allowed to dine together, up from five.
Starting April 1, all vaccinated travelers and children ages 12 and under will be able to enter Singapore with just a test before departure. Previously, travelers could take only designated flights to enter Singapore with quarantining and were required to take an antigen rapid test within 24 hours of arrival.
Mr. Lee said traveling would be “almost like before Covid-19.” The government said it would monitor the local and global Covid situations and consider removing the pre-departure test requirement in the coming weeks.
“These domestic and cross-border changes represent a major step toward living with Covid-19,” Mr. Lee said. “But they stop short of a complete opening up. We remain watchful because Covid-19 may yet bring further surprises.”
The easing is significant for a nation that has prided itself on what Mr. Lee describes as a “measured” strategy to keep the death rate low. In recent months, many residents have expressed frustration with the government’s risk-averse approach after seeing other countries relax restrictions.
The prime minister said his government was sticking to its careful strategy, “which has served us well over the past two years.” He noted that other countries had adopted a “Freedom Day” approach and “declared the pandemic over, relaxed all restrictions at once.” (England lifted nearly all of its coronavirus restrictions in July in what some of the news media referred to as “Freedom Day.”)
“Now, they are anxiously watching their infection and mortality numbers rising rapidly again,” Mr. Lee said.
People without masks would still have to maintain a “safe” distance of one meter from one another, he said.
Starting Tuesday, people will no longer have to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants but will be subject to random spot checks. Live performances can resume, and alcohol can again be sold after 10:30 p.m.
“After this major step, we will wait awhile to let the situation stabilize,” Mr. Lee said. “If all goes well, we will ease up further.”
Many Asian and Pacific countries are dismantling thickets of pandemic rules at bewildering speeds, even though the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is still raging in many places. The trend could be seen in the crowds packing the Manila zoo, K-Pop concerts in Seoul and Hindu festival celebrations across India over the last week.
The moves are driven by a mix of medical advice, economic pressure and a pandemic-weary public’s growing sentiment that enough is enough. But there is at least one major country bucking the trend: China.
Mainland China, with 1.4 billion people, has tried to stick with a “zero Covid” approach, including snap lockdowns and strict border controls, since early 2020. State-controlled media play up reports of the pandemic’s high toll of death and illness abroad, and point to China’s relatively low numbers as a sign of the superiority of the country’s system.
But experts have questioned the wisdom of the country’s maximalist approach, which has disrupted manufacturing and snarled frayed supply chains, as China has grappled recently with its largest outbreak since the pandemic began.
“China’s zero-Covid policy will increasingly leave it — and Hong Kong, to the extent that it follows — isolated,” said Victor V. Ramraj, a law professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.
Volkswagen said on Thursday that its large assembly plant in Changchun, in China’s Jilin Province, would remain closed on Friday, marking two weeks of closure. Jilin Province has been hit hard by Omicron, with roads closed and large urban areas locked down. Volkswagen declined to say when the assembly plant might be able to reopen. Its factories in Shanghai also closed for two days last week, but quickly reopened.
Hong Kong, a Chinese territory whose Covid policies once mirrored those on the mainland, took a different tack this week. Alarmed at the cost of lockdowns and isolation for an economy that relies heavily on international trade, the territory’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced a reversal of its ban on flights from nine countries. She also signaled plans to further relax Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions, as most other countries in the region are doing, even if Beijing is not.
The chief executives of the largest U.S. airlines asked President Biden on Wednesday to allow a federal mask mandate at airports and on planes to expire next month.
The group also asked that the government drop a requirement that visitors from abroad provide a negative coronavirus test before traveling to the United States.
“The persistent and steady decline of hospitalization and death rates are the most compelling indicators that our country is well protected against severe disease from Covid-19,” the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and several other passenger and cargo carriers wrote in a letter to Mr. Biden.
“Given that we have entered a different phase of dealing with this virus, we strongly support your view that ‘Covid-19 need no longer control our lives,’” they said, citing a phrase the president used in his State of the Union address earlier this month.
The letter represents the first time that the industry has publicly united against the mask mandate, which was recently extended until mid-April. At a congressional hearing in December, Gary Kelly, the chief executive of Southwest Airlines, cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks on planes, but he stood alone. A day later, Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, told CNBC, “Masks are going to be important as a safeguard for a while yet.”
Earlier this week, TWU Local 556, the union that represents flight attendants from Southwest Airlines, wrote a letter to the Biden administration urging it to drop the federal mask mandate for public transportation.
A growing chorus of Americans, politicians and business leaders have called for an end to such mandates. This month, Hawaii became the 50th and final state to drop its indoor mask mandate.
White House officials are again pleading with Congress for more emergency aid to buy coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics as a highly infectious Omicron subvariant spreads, though the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought Wednesday to assuage concerns about it.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said BA.2 accounts for about 35 percent of new U.S. coronavirus cases, and appears to be driving small increases in cases in both the city and state of New York, as well as some hospitalizations in New England, where more than half of all infections are attributable to BA.2.
But, she added, there’s no evidence that the BA.2 variant results in more severe disease or is more likely to be able to evade our immune protection.
Dr. Walensky’s comments came at the first White House briefing on Covid-19 since March 2, the day that the administration unveiled President Biden’s plan to transition away from pandemic crisis mode and toward what many experts are calling a “new normal.” But that plan depends on funding from Congress, which so far is not forthcoming.
The administration has asked lawmakers for $22.5 billion in emergency Covid aid, mostly to purchase new vaccines and treatments.
Officials have said that they have enough vaccine on hand to offer additional booster doses to immunocompromised people and those 65 and older this spring if regulators recommend it. But they do not have enough to prepare for a possible fall surge that might warrant fresh booster shots for all adults. And the administration has already been cutting back its shipments of monoclonal antibody drugs to states.
The administration wants the money without strings attached. But Republican lawmakers are demanding that the spending be offset by taking funds from other programs. They also want an accounting of how previous relief packages have been spent.
On Wednesday, there were hints of progress. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, who earlier this month led a group of about three dozen senators in sending a letter asking the White House for such an accounting, told reporters on Wednesday that he expected to receive a revised proposal soon.
“The White House did provide a listing of money that’s not been spent, and the Democrat leadership is sending over today a proposal and I’ll take a look at that and see where we stand,” Mr. Romney said, according to The Hill.
Mr. Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey D. Zients, said during Wednesday’s briefing that “Congress has all the information it needs” to act. He came prepared with visuals to make the point: a 385-page stack of charts and documents that he said the White House had shared with lawmakers.
“With every day that passes, we risk not having the tools we need to fight Covid-19,” he said, adding, “The virus is not waiting for Congress to act. With every minute this funding request is stalled, we’re losing our ability to protect people.”