As Britain found itself even more isolated on Tuesday because of a newly discovered variant of the coronavirus spreading there, the executive arm of the European Union called for member states to lift blanket air- and train-travel bans and ensure essential travel, recommending testing or quarantines instead.
The upheaval over the virus variant grew after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said over the weekend that it had been shown to be more contagious than other variants. British officials said there was no reason to believe that the new variant caused more serious illness, and most experts doubt it will render the current vaccines ineffective.
But governments around the world were not waiting for a more complete picture of the new variant, instead racing to seal their borders to travelers from Britain. More than 50 governments put in place some sort of regulation, and officials in London warned that the lockdown measures in effect in the capital and southern England might need to be expanded. The United States has not put in place a travel ban on Britain. There are no confirmed cases of the variant circulating in the United States, but that does not mean it hasn’t already reached American shores.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said on Tuesday that it was important to maintain movement for essential travel and transport between Britain and the European Union, and also suggested that to allow the transport of goods to flow freely, countries should use rapid tests for truckers and haulers rather than time-consuming P.C.R. tests. The recommendations are nonbinding.
“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” the commission said in a statement.
Britain and France inched closer on Tuesday to a deal that would allow bottlenecked freight trucks to resume traveling between the two countries, raising hopes of relief for hundreds of drivers stuck near British ports and for supermarkets warning that they could soon run short of fruit and vegetables.
Addressing the issue of E.U. nationals stuck in Britain and vice versa, the commission said that they should be exempted from any temporary restrictions and be permitted to go home.
The rush to try to beat the pathogen by closing borders brought back memories of the world’s reaction after the coronavirus first emerged broadly in the spring. Most of those initial travel prohibitions came too late, put in place after the virus had already seeded itself in communities far and wide.
Some experts say the frenzied rush to close borders this time around threatens to cause more economic and emotional hardship as the devastation wrought by the virus continues to grow. And since it is not known how widely the variant is circulating, the bans might not even slow it down much.
“It is idiotic,” was the blunt assessment of Dr. Peter Kremsner, the director of Tübingen University Hospital in Germany. “If this mutant was only on the island, only then does it make sense to close the borders to England, Scotland and Wales. But if it has spread, then we have to combat the new mutant everywhere.”
Despite the debate, the reverberations continue to ripple across the globe, with Nepal on Tuesday announcing a flight entry ban on people arriving from Britain.
The European Commission’s cautionary tone was echoed by Dr. Ugur Sahin, the co-founder of BioNTech, which, with Pfizer, developed the first vaccine approved in the West to combat the coronavirus. In nuanced comments, he said that it would be two weeks before full results from laboratory studies would allow for a fuller understanding of how the mutations might impact the effectiveness of the vaccine.
“We believe that there is no reason to be concerned until we get the data,” he said.
If an adapted vaccine were necessary, it could be ready within six weeks, Dr. Sahin told a news conference on Tuesday. But it would require additional approval from regulators, which could increase the wait-time, he said.
The British government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said Monday night that the new strain was now “everywhere” across England and that cases were only expected to grow over the holiday period.
“I think it’s likely therefore that measures will need to be increased in some places in due course, not reduced,” Mr. Vallance said.
Officials in France and Germany also acknowledged that it was possible the variant was circulating in their countries.
The World Health Organization also sought to temper the growing sense of alarm over the new variant and the danger it poses. “There is zero evidence at this point that there is any increase in the severity associated with this disease,” Mike Ryan, the W.H.O. emergency director, said at a virtual news conference. “Clearly there is work ongoing to look at transmission and the increased rates of transmission and how much of that is attributable to this particular variant.”
While scientists around the world worked to better understand the dangers of the variant, the measures being put in place to try and contain it were already being felt across Britain.
Millions of people forced to abruptly cancel Christmas plans are now also facing the prospect of a disruption to basic services unlike anything experienced so far in the pandemic. Even the Royal Mail was forced to temporarily suspend all services to Europe, with the exception of Ireland, because of the “current restrictions around air, road, ferry and train movements.”
In recent days, the world has watched with curiosity and growing alarm as scientists in Britain have described a newly identified variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious than, and genetically distinct from, more established variants. Initial studies of the new variant prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to tighten restrictions over Christmas, and spurred officials in countries around the world to ban travel from Britain.
Here’s what scientists have learned about it so far.
Is the British variant some kind of new supervirus?
No. It’s just one variation among many that have arisen as the coronavirus has spread around the world. Mutations arise as a virus replicates, and this variant — known as B.1.1.7 — has acquired its own distinctive set of them.
Is it more contagious than other viruses?
It appears so. In preliminary work, researchers in Britain have found that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England, displacing a crowded field of other variants that have been circulating for months.
However, a virus lineage becoming more common is not proof that it spreads faster than others. It could grow more widespread simply through luck. For instance, a variant might start out in the middle of a crowded city, where transmission is easy, allowing it to make more copies of itself.
Still, the epidemiological evidence gathered so far from England does seem to suggest that this variant is very good at spreading. In places where it has become more common, the overall number of coronavirus cases is spiking. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, estimates that the variant has an increased transmission rate of 50 to 70 percent compared with other variants in Britain.
Does it cause more severe disease?
There is no strong evidence that it does, at least not yet. But there is reason to take the possibility seriously. In South Africa, another lineage of the coronavirus has gained one particular mutation that is also found in B.1.1.7. This variant is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa. And in preliminary studies, doctors there have found that people infected with this variant carry a heightened viral load. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.
Is the variant already circulating in the U.S.?
Not yet, as far as anyone knows. But that does not mean it hasn’t already reached the United States. British scientists have established a much stronger system to monitor coronaviruses for new mutations. It’s conceivable that someone traveling from Britain has brought it with them.
Will the variant render the new vaccines ineffective?
No. Most experts doubt that it will have any great impact on vaccines, although it’s not yet possible to rule out any effect.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was vaccinated on Tuesday during a live broadcast of what the National Institutes of Health called a kickoff event showcasing Moderna’s vaccine, which was developed by scientists at the agency and received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday.
Rolling up the sleeve of a blue dress shirt, Dr. Fauci called his public vaccination “a symbol to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence in the safety and the efficacy of this vaccine.”
“I want to encourage everyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated so that we can have a veil of protection over this country that would end this pandemic,” he said.
Joining Dr. Fauci in an auditorium at N.I.H. to receive vaccinations were Dr. Francis S. Collins, the agency’s director, Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, and frontline workers at the N.I.H. Clinical Center. They will receive the second dose of the Moderna vaccine in 28 days.
The Moderna vaccine, which has received billions of dollars of support from the federal government, has become a triumphant symbol of the administration’s efforts to develop and distribute a vaccine. It was designed by scientists at N.I.H. and the company within two days of China’s releasing the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.
“What we’re seeing now is the culmination of years of research, which have led to a phenomenon that has truly been unprecedented,” Dr. Fauci said at the Tuesday event. “And that is to go from the realization that we’re dealing with a new pathogen, a virus that was described in January of this year, to less than one year later to have vaccines that are going into the arms of so many people, including myself.”
Dr. Fauci’s vaccination was long awaited by public figures and health experts. Former President Barack Obama recently said that if Dr. Fauci, who will also be the chief medical adviser to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. once he takes office, endorses a coronavirus vaccine, that would be a signal to him that it is safe.
On Monday, Mr. Biden received a coronavirus vaccine on live television at the Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., to send a message to Americans across the country that the vaccine was safe to take.
“Left’s good,” he told the nurse practitioner who administered the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, rolling up the sleeve of his black long-sleeve turtleneck and exposing his left arm. “You just go ahead anytime you’re ready.”
He credited the Trump administration for its work on Operation Warp Speed, which helped to deliver a quick vaccine.
“The administration deserves some credit getting this off the ground,” he said. “I’m doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it’s available to take the vaccine.”
Mr. Biden, however, warned Americans that vigilance in the coming months was still necessary.
“It’s going to take time,” he said, encouraging people to continue to wear masks and socially distance. “If you don’t have to travel, don’t travel,” he said. “It’s really important.”
Since March, Mr. Biden’s team has been taking public health guidelines about social distancing and masks seriously, as President Trump and his aides have willfully disregarded them. But even Mr. Biden’s more careful circle has been infiltrated by the virus. Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and one of Mr. Biden’s closest advisers, tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the transition team announced.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is expected to receive her vaccine after Christmas, a spokeswoman said, following advice from doctors who recommended Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris stagger their first shots rather than receive them together.
Hundreds of dollars in direct payments may start going to American households as soon as next week after Congress overwhelmingly passed a $900 billion stimulus package sending billions of dollars to individuals and businesses grappling with the economic and health toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-sought relief package was part of a $2.3 trillion catchall package that included $1.4 trillion to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It included the extension of routine tax provisions, a tax deduction for corporate meals, the establishment of two Smithsonian museums, a ban on surprise medical bills and a restoration of Pell grants for incarcerated students, among hundreds of other measures.
Though the $900 billion stimulus package is half the size of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March that provided the core of its legislative provisions, it remains one of the largest relief packages in modern American history. It will revive a supplemental unemployment benefit for millions of unemployed Americans at $300 a week for 11 weeks and provide for another round of $600 direct payments to adults and children.
“I expect we’ll get the money out by the beginning of next week — $2,400 for a family of four — so much needed relief just in time for the holidays,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC. “I think this will take us through the recovery.”
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who received a coronavirus vaccine on Monday with television cameras rolling, has insisted that this bill is only the beginning, and that more relief, especially to state and local governments, will be coming after his inauguration next month.
Lawmakers hustled on Monday to pass the bill, nearly 5,600 pages long, less than 24 hours after its completion and before virtually anyone had read it. At one point, aides struggled simply to put the measure online because of a corrupted computer file.
The legislative text is likely to be one of the longest ever, and it became available only a few hours before both chambers approved the bill. In the Senate, the bill passed 92 to 6. It will now go to President Trump for his signature.
Hospitalizations and deaths have continued to soar in California as the state has emerged as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — and they don’t appear to be slowing down.
With just 2.5 percent of the state’s overall intensive care capacity available, officials have been rushing to get more so-called field hospitals, or alternative care sites, up and running. And while Gov. Gavin Newsom didn’t officially extend what were supposed to be three-week stay-at-home orders affecting most of the state’s 40 million residents, he said on Monday it was “self-evident” that the orders would need to be in effect well into January, in light of projections that more than 90,000 people in California could be hospitalized with the virus in coming weeks.
The state added 295,000 cases over the past week, according to a New York Times database, and is likely to reach 300,000 new cases this week, given the virus’s trajectory.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of health and human services, said on Monday that health care providers and state and local leaders were working frantically to prevent health care systems from tipping into what he and the governor described as crisis mode.
“We continue to build up our capacity,” he said. “When we look forward to that forecast of quite a few patients toward the end of January — that’s not a story that’s already been written.”
But as has been the case in the last couple of months, making sure health care facilities are sufficiently staffed has been the biggest hurdle. Nurses, doctors, janitors and so many others are exhausted. Help from other states and the federal government is scarce as so much of the nation suffers from the rapid spread of Covid-19.
In the next week or so, more Californians could hear that many hospitals are simply full. Patients who are unable to avoid going to the hospital will encounter hourslong waits in hallways.
The mere possibility that California’s caseload could overwhelm even the state’s emergency surge capacity is likely to harm workers, said Joanne Spetz, a professor at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The term psychologists use is ‘moral distress,’” she said. “And that is a huge, looming and developing issue among health professionals.”
Antarctica is no longer the last continent free from the coronavirus after 36 people stationed at a Chilean research base tested positive, local media reported.
The virus was detected in 26 members of the Chilean military and 10 maintenance workers stationed at the Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme in the Antarctic Peninsula, the authorities said in a statement to 24 Horas, adding that they were tested after reports that some had developed symptoms.
They were among a group of 60 people who were evacuated from the base to the Chilean city of Punta Arenas over the weekend and have since been isolated, the program reported, and contact tracing was underway. Three cases have also been found in crew members of a Chilean Navy ship returning from the continent, La Prensa Austral reported.
The Chilean army and the Chilean Antarctic Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. National Science Foundation said it was aware of reports of virus cases among passengers who would have disembarked in the ports of Punta Arenas and Talcahuano from the Chilean Navy vessel Sargento Aldea, which had been traveling near the O’Higgins station.
“Personnel at U.S. Antarctic Program stations have had no interactions with the Chilean stations in question or the personnel who reside there,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the foundation “remains committed to not exchanging personnel or accepting tourists” at American stations.
Reports of the cases appear to end the continent’s nine-month escape from a virus that has been found in almost every other corner of the world. About 1,000 people have weathered a sunless winter on the continent, which contains about 40 bases, according to The Associated Press, and newcomers must quarantine and test frequently. Bases are small, with people living in close contact, and movement typically picks up in the austral summer, which began in November, when new supplies and people arrive to the continent as others leave.
Research and tourism on the continent have already been severely reduced, and experts say fallout from the pandemic is likely to have a longer impact on governance and travel there.
The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs has warned that the virus could have “catastrophic” consequences on the continent, given the extreme environment and limited medical and health resources there, according to The Associated Press.
Henry Fountain contributed reporting.
Some 700 foreigners in France who were exposed to the coronavirus through their work will be put on a fast track for naturalization as a reward for their commitment during the pandemic, the junior minister for citizenship said on Tuesday.
The beneficiaries, whom the ministry called “frontline foreign workers in the face of the health crisis,” include health care workers, child care professionals, housekeepers and cashiers.
“They have proved their commitment to the nation,” a statement from the office of the minister, Marlène Schiappa, said. “It is now up to the Republic to take a step toward them.”
In September, the French Interior Ministry asked regional officials to identify foreign workers who had “actively contributed” to the fight against the coronavirus and facilitate their application for fast naturalization.
“Some foreigners swung into action and were particularly exposed in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ms. Schiappa wrote in a letter sent in September to regional authorities. “They actively participated in the national effort, with dedication and courage.”
More than 70 applicants have since then obtained citizenship and 693 more are in the final stage of the process, Ms. Schiappa’s office said in the statement on Tuesday.
The authorities have also been ordered to reduce the residency period in France required to obtain citizenship to two years from the usual five in the case of “great services rendered.”
SEOUL, South Korea — In several provinces across South Korea, there are no I.C.U. beds available to treat the rapidly rising number of Covid-19 patients. As of Monday, only 42 beds were available nationwide, the government said. In the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s population and the majority of its recent infections, there were just six.
The latest explosion of coronavirus cases in South Korea has put the country on edge in a way that it has not been since the beginning of the pandemic. If cases cannot be brought under control and the strain on hospitals alleviated, the government could for the first time impose Level 3 restrictions, the set of social-distancing rules just short of a lockdown in South Korea.
A quiet fear has taken hold in a country that for much of the year was held up as a model for the rest of the world. The streets of Seoul are growing emptier by the day. Supermarkets have reported brisk sales of instant noodles and meal kits. Restaurant owners are anxious they will be forced to close their doors except for takeout orders.
And now, the virus is even harder to contain.
“Unlike in the past, this time the virus seems to pop up everywhere and no place is safe,” said Myeong Hae-kyung, a chief nurse at the Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu who served on the front line when the city was the epicenter of the country’s first coronavirus outbreak early this year.
“In recent days, my life has been alternating just between the hospital and home,” she said. “I am afraid to go anywhere else.”
In this wave, hospitals are a critical focus in South Korea. The country has aimed to provide patients with hospital beds within a day of receiving a diagnosis.
But as of Sunday, 368 patients in the Seoul metropolitan area were waiting at home for beds to be assigned to them. Last week, a patient in Seoul died at home while waiting for a hospital bed. Another died at home in Seoul on Sunday.
Taiwan on Tuesday reported its first case of local coronavirus transmission in eight months, creating an unfamiliar sense of anxiety on the island, which has so far avoided mass lockdowns and had only a handful of Covid deaths.
The government’s Central Epidemic Command Center said that the infected person, a woman in her 30s, had come in contact with an airplane worker who arrived in Taiwan from the United States last week and was confirmed to be infected on Sunday.
The airplane worker, whom the government described as a man in his 60s from New Zealand, had worked on the same Dec. 12 flight, from Taiwan to the United States, as two other people who have since tested positive for the virus. The three had spent time drinking and dining together without protective equipment, the Taiwan authorities said. The man from New Zealand had also been coughing on the flight, the authorities said.
Taiwan’s epidemic command center said on Tuesday that the man had traveled with the woman who tested positive to two department stores in Taipei and a Costco in the nearby city of Taoyuan between Dec. 8 and Dec. 11.
The command center said it had identified 167 people who may have come into contact with the woman and was arranging testing for them.
Taiwan has enjoyed remarkable success at dodging the worst of the pandemic by enforcing quarantines on people who enter from abroad. The island has recorded seven deaths related to the coronavirus and 770 confirmed infections, nearly all of them overseas arrivals.
Public schools in many parts of the country are headed for a financial cliff, as the coronavirus drives up the costs of education while tax revenue and student enrollment continue to fall.
Schools can expect about $54 billion from the coronavirus stimulus plan approved by Congress late Monday night. But officials say that’s not nearly enough to make up for the crushing losses state and local budgets have suffered during the pandemic, or the costs of both remote learning and attempts to bring students back to classrooms.
Advocates for public education estimate that schools have lost close to $200 billion so far.
“We’re going to need way more investment both in the short term, to deal with Covid, and in the long term,” said Chip Slaven, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.
The pandemic has already forced schools across the country to fire nonunion employees, spending the money instead on remote learning technology, retrofitting buildings, testing and surveillance programs, and other coronavirus-related expenses. Education has been among the hardest hit parts of the economy, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with employment down 8.8 percent in October from the year before and lower than at any point in the past two decades — a loss of millions of jobs.
The fiscal crisis is looming at a time when families fed up with pandemic-era education have increasingly turned to private and charter schools or chosen to educate their children at home. That’s potentially a major drain on public school budgets, because most states base school funding at least in part on enrollment numbers.
The school boards association estimated that as many as three million students — about 6 percent of the public school population — are not in classes right now, and that number could grow.
“We’ll have to see how many of those folks come back home after normalcy can be achieved,” said David Adkins, the executive director and chief executive of the Council of State Governments. But if the pandemic accelerates an exodus of affluent families from the public school system, he said, he fears the loss of enrollment and political support could trigger a “death spiral,” further weakening public schools at a time when poor and disadvantaged students are already lagging.
The pandemic is sweeping through death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., with at least 14 of the roughly 50 men there having tested positive, lawyers for the inmates and others familiar with their cases said.
The outbreak comes as the Trump administration is seeking to continue the wave of federal executions it has conducted, with three more scheduled before President Trump leaves office on Jan. 20. Two of the three people scheduled to be put to death next month — Corey Johnson and Dustin John Higgs — have tested positive for the virus.
Already their lawyers are saying their execution dates should be withdrawn. And postponement past Jan. 20 could be the difference between life and death, as President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he would work to end federal capital punishment.
The Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions about what protocols they would use to determine whether to delay execution of a prisoner who had Covid-19.
But there is evidence that executions can become spreading events.
After the November execution of Orlando Hall, a Bureau of Prisons official revealed in a court filing that eight members of the execution team had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that five of them planned to travel to Terre Haute for the December executions. Mr. Hall’s spiritual adviser said he also tested positive after attending the execution.
There is a precedent of sorts for citing the virus as cause for postponement. The third person scheduled to be executed before Mr. Trump leaves office is Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row. She is not held at Terre Haute, and has not tested positive for the virus.
But after the government announced its intention to execute Ms. Montgomery — convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and abducting her unborn child — two of her lawyers traveled to visit her at a federal prison in Texas. They later tested positive for the coronavirus.
A court order then temporarily enjoined the government from executing Ms. Montgomery, who was scheduled to die this month, and the Justice Department delayed her execution until January.