Until now, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Covid-19 task force has had to prepare its battle plan without the keys to the government agencies leading the pandemic response.
That changes this week, when Mr. Biden can finally dispatch what are known as landing teams to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
They will have prepared the traditional welcome gift: enormous briefing books that detail nearly everything the agencies have been working on for the past four years; lists of friendly lawmakers, budgets, accomplishments, roadblocks; and suggested targets for the new administration.
The president-elect will also inherit something nobody would want: a national crisis that is accelerating by the day. The daily average of new cases in the United States over the past week is at record levels, a staggering 173,000, and growing. Forty-five states are recording sustained caseload increases, and nine are reporting more than twice as many new cases a day as they did two weeks ago.
In the weeks since Election Day, the dire outlook has been tempered by encouraging early results from three major vaccine developers. But Mr. Biden and his top aides have said their ability to effectively plan a pandemic response had been stymied by President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his victory and the refusal of the head of the General Services Administration to formally authorize the transition process that would grant Mr. Biden’s transition team access to funds, equipment and government data. That argument has been seconded by a growing chorus of senior Republican lawmakers, business executives and other public figures.
On Monday, President Trump’s government finally authorized Mr. Biden to begin a formal transition process. It is supposed to be led by career staff, not political appointees — and the Biden team can expect to find a warm welcome from them, particularly scientists on the team who Mr. Trump has criticized for years.
But in a pandemic, there is no time to waste. The F.D.A. landing team will need to get up to speed on a planned vaccine roll out, as well as the most promising new vaccine candidates and therapeutics. It may also designate a career staff member to be the agency’s acting commissioner if the current one, Stephen M. Hahn, leaves before a replacement can be nominated and confirmed.
At the C.D.C., one of the most pressing issues will be taking over a public education campaign, now in development, to persuade the public to trust — and take — the vaccine.
In the absence of a formal transition, Mr. Biden had been left trying to signal to Americans that he is prepared to take charge of a disjointed federal virus response.
“It doesn’t matter who you voted for, where you stood before Election Day,” Mr. Biden said in Delaware in early November after announcing a coronavirus task force. “It doesn’t matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democratic or Republican lives — American lives.”
As the coronavirus swept across the world, it picked up random alterations to its genetic sequence. Like meaningless typos in a script, most of those mutations made no difference in how the virus behaved.
But one mutation near the beginning of the pandemic did make a difference, multiple new findings suggest, helping the virus spread more easily from person to person and making the pandemic harder to stop.
The mutation, known as 614G, was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City. Within months, the variant took over much of the world, displacing other variants.
For months, scientists have been fiercely debating why. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory argued in May that the variant had probably evolved the ability to infect people more efficiently. Many were skeptical, arguing that the variant may have been simply lucky, appearing more often by chance in large epidemics, like Northern Italy’s, that seeded outbreaks elsewhere.
But a host of new research — including close genetic analysis of outbreaks and lab work with hamsters and human lung tissue — has supported the view that the mutated virus did in fact have a distinct advantage, infecting people more easily than the original variant detected in Wuhan, China.
There is no evidence that viruses with the 614G mutation cause more severe symptoms, kill more people or complicate the development of vaccines. Nor do the findings change the reality that places that quickly and aggressively enacted lockdowns and encouraged measures like social distancing and masks have fared far better than the those that did not.
But if the findings hold up, they show that the mutation early this year played a key role in why the virus has been so hard to stop, said Dr. David Engelthaler, a geneticist at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona.
“When all is said and done, it could be that this mutation is what made the pandemic,” Dr. Engelthaler said.
Fewer travelers were screened at airport security checkpoints on Monday than the day before, but the number still reached nearly a million people, a concerning indication that people flying for Thanksgiving could increase the spread of the coronavirus.
About 917,000 people were screened by the Transportation Security Administration on Monday, according to federal data published on Tuesday. That number was down from more than one million on Sunday and was less than half of what it was in 2019. But it represents a big increase from the spring, when fewer than a half a million people flew on any given day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are strongly discouraging holiday travel as the number of new infections surges across the country.
The number of people who are expected to drive for the holiday is also expected to be down, but not by as much as air travel. The AAA motor club said this month that it expected road trips to be down by just 4.3 percent this holiday. The group said overall holiday travel would decline this year by at least 10 percent, to about 50 million people. But it added that the overall drop could be even larger than that given the recent warnings from public health officials for people to stay at home.
Airlines have said that flying is safe because of the precautions the industry has put in place, like high-end air filtration. They also point to the relatively few published cases of the coronavirus being spread during a flight. But the science on in-flight safety is far from settled, and travelers would still be at risk of contracting or spreading the virus at airports and once they are at their destination.
Interest in travel generally has increased after recent announcements by pharmaceutical companies that their coronavirus vaccine candidates have been effective at preventing infections, according to preliminary data. Travel bookings increased by about 25 percent after Pfizer said in early November that a vaccine it was developing with BioNTech was more than 90 percent effective, according to Skyscanner, a travel search engine.
The increase in travel during the holidays has been encouraging for airlines. But it won’t be enough to offset the deep losses they have suffered during the pandemic. The nation’s largest airlines have collectively reported tens of billions of dollars in losses so far this year, and analysts expect demand to remain weak for a couple of years or more. The industry is hoping that the incoming Biden administration and Congress will give airlines more aid early next year.
Thirteen African countries will take part in a clinical trial aimed at identifying treatments that could prevent moderate coronavirus cases from becoming more severe. The randomized trial will be carried out by ANTICOV, a consortium of 26 African and European clinical institutions, and the study’s authors hope the results will lead to fewer hospitalizations, which could overwhelm fragile health systems in the continent.
While many Western countries are preparing plans to distribute a successful vaccine in the coming months, vaccine nationalism and a $4 billion gap in procurement financing in Africa could mean that many countries there experience delays or are left out of the rollout. Governments in these countries are instead exploring other ways to manage any potential case surges.
The clinical trial will explore therapeutic medicines currently used to treat malaria, H.I.V. and certain cancers, among other diseases. Testing is already underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Kenya expected to follow soon. Once individual countries give regulatory approval, the Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, and Uganda will also come on board.
Africa has largely avoided the devastating spikes that have swept across Western nations. Experts believe this could be because of younger populations, existing cross-immunity and fewer travel links, among other reasons. Some have suggested numbers may be underreported, although lower hospitalization rates would seem to rule out huge numbers of undetected cases.
But the continent is experiencing a new uptick in cases, and experts warn the holiday season may lead to new outbreaks as families travel or relax social distancing measures.
Africa this week passed the two million cases mark, with the bulk of recorded infections — almost 800,000 — coming from South Africa, the most developed economy in the sub-Saharan region.
This month has seen a torrent of news about experimental vaccines to prevent Covid-19, with the latest development from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. On Monday they announced that a preliminary analysis showed their vaccine was effective — especially when the first dose was mistakenly cut in half.
Surprisingly, the vaccine combination in which the first dose was only at half strength was 90 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 in the trial. In contrast, the combination of two, full-dose shots led to just 62 percent efficacy.
Why would that be?
No one knows. The researchers speculated that the lower first dose did a better job of mimicking the experience of an infection, promoting a stronger immune response. But other factors, like the size and makeup of the groups that got different doses, may also be at play.
Why did the researchers test two different doses?
It was a lucky mistake. Researchers in Britain had been meaning to give volunteers the initial dose at full strength, but they made a miscalculation and accidentally gave it at half strength, Reuters reported. After discovering the error, the researchers gave each affected participant the full strength booster shot as planned about a month later.
Fewer than 2,800 volunteers got the half-strength initial dose, out of the more than 23,000 participants whose results were reported on Monday. That’s a pretty small number of participants on which to base the spectacular efficacy results — far fewer than in Pfizer’s and Moderna’s trials.
Australia’s largest airline, Qantas, is planning to make coronavirus vaccines — when they become available — compulsory for passengers who want to fly internationally, and its chief executive predicted that other airlines would follow.
Alan Joyce, the head of Qantas, said on Monday that the airline was looking at changing its terms and conditions to make vaccines compulsory for those traveling into or out of Australia.
He also said he believed vaccinations as a condition for international air travel would be mandated by more airlines: “I’ve talked to my colleagues at other airlines across the globe, and I think it’s going to be a common theme across the board.”
He said airlines and governments around the world have considered developing an electronic vaccination passport that would certify if passengers were vaccinated and with what vaccine. Mr. Joyce’s comments coincided with an announcement by the International Air Transport Association that it was in the final stages of developing a digital health pass that would provide travelers’ testing and vaccine information to governments and airlines.
The Australian government has said that coronavirus vaccines will be “as mandatory as you can possibly make it.”
Qantas has not finalized any changes since no vaccines are predicted to be available in Australia until early next year, but one British travel company said it would stop selling Qantas flights.
In other news from around the world:
In an upcoming book, Pope Francis criticizes those who do not wear masks, saying, “It is all too easy for some to take an idea — in this case, for example, personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology.” The pope has himself been criticized for not wearing masks at his public appearances.
King Felipe VI of Spain has started a 10-day quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who later tested positive for Covid-19. The royal household did not disclose whom the king had met but said in a statement that all of his official activities had been canceled during the quarantine period. The king’s wife, Queen Letizia, and their two daughters have not been quarantined.
Prime Minister Johnny Briceño of Belize will isolate for two weeks after testing positive for Covid-19, Reuters reported. The country has recorded a total of 5,200 coronavirus cases, according to a New York Times database.
The parliament of Lithuania installed a new prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, on Tuesday and then swiftly adjourned for a week because of a surge of coronavirus cases in the country, The Associated Press reported. The former government was heavily criticized over soaring unemployment stemming from the pandemic.
Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America, went into lockdown on Monday. But in contrast to New York and other big American cities, officials are finding it more beneficial to keep schools open.
“We cannot put in-class learning at risk,” Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, said last week. Along with trying to avoid overwhelming hospitals and protecting older adults in long-term care homes, Mr. Ford said, educating students was “what matters most.”
Mr. Ford’s announcement illustrated how Canada has followed the lead of much of Europe, prioritizing the opening or reopening of schools, while just across the border, many U.S. states have focused on keeping businesses open.
In most places, there are no official thresholds for shutting schools down and there is little appetite to do so, according to Ahmed Al-Jaishi, an epidemiologist who is part of an academic team compiling school outbreaks across Canada. And, despite fears among parents that students would bring the disease home and among teachers that they would get infected, such outcomes have been rare.
Even so, some parents in Toronto have been reluctant to allow their children to return to in-class learning, particularly now, with the city seeing its biggest surge in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic. Last week, the city reported a 6.2 percent positive test rate. That is more than double the 3 percent positive test rate in New York that triggered school shutdowns last week.
Most schools across Canada shut in March, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Canadians to stay home and closed the border. In many cases, the schools didn’t reopen until September, after months of parental complaints, children falling behind in schoolwork and rising concerns about the effects of social isolation.
The makers of a leading Russian vaccine candidate, Sputnik V, said on Tuesday that it showed an efficacy rate of 95 percent in preliminary results from a clinical trial, which would put it at the same level as or better than three other vaccines that have yielded results in recent weeks.
However, that figure was based on an unspecified small group of volunteers within the ongoing Phase 3 trial of the vaccine, and the vaccine makers did not specify how many people with the vaccine or the placebo got sick. When the trial is done, the company said, they will release more complete data.
While it was hard to immediately assess the efficacy of the vaccine based on the announcement and the fact that the Phase 3 trials are not complete, the news promised to add to the flurry of excitement over the promise that vaccines could bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end.
The American and German team of Pfizer and BioNTech and the American company Moderna have announced efficacy rates of 95 and 94.5 percent, respectively. And AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford said on Monday their vaccine is either 62 percent or 90 percent effective, depending on the manner in which the doses were given.
Russia registered the vaccine for emergency use in August before beginning a clinical trial to measure its efficacy, shortcutting the usual process and drawing international criticism. President Vladimir V. Putin claimed it was the first vaccine in the world to receive government approval.
Russia has marketed its vaccine mostly in former Soviet states and countries with developing economies, saying the cost of one dose will be less than $10 for international markers. Officials said that vaccine makers have received orders for 1.2 billion doses from around 50 countries. The Russian Direct Investment Fund has said that about 10,000 people have been inoculated under the emergency-use approval.
On Nov. 11, the government-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund announced that an analysis of the first 20 volunteers indicated an efficacy rate of 92 percent. On Tuesday, the fund provided offered a similar estimate with more details. They analyzed 18,794 volunteers who have received both injections of the two-dose regimen; 14,095 got the vaccine and 4,699 got the placebo.
A week after the second dose, they found 39 cases of Covid-19, with only eight of the volunteers who got sick having received the vaccine. Based on the ratio of volunteers who got the vaccine to the placebo, the researchers estimated the efficacy at 91.4 percent.
But in their announcement, the fund said that researchers also looked at an unspecified number of volunteers three weeks after the second dose. In those volunteers, they calculated an efficacy rate of 95 percent.
The researchers will take another look at the results when they reach 78 cases of Covid-19 in the volunteers.
In August, the Russian Direct Investment Fund named the vaccine Sputnik V for the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union, though at the time, other vaccines were further along in development.
Russian scientists have begun Phase 3 clinical trials on two other vaccines.
For days, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has been preaching a message of sacrifice during the holidays, warning New Yorkers that Thanksgiving gatherings could be dangerous as virus cases spike across the nation.
So it was surprising when Mr. Cuomo announced on Monday that he had invited his 89-year-old mother, Matilda, and two of his daughters to celebrate a very Cuomo Thanksgiving with him in Albany.
The news of the family dinner came during a radio interview.
“My mom is going to come up and two of my girls,” the governor said on WAMC, a public radio station out of Albany, adding, “The plans change. But that’s my plan.”
Mr. Cuomo’s plans would quickly change again, but not soon enough to avoid a barrage of condemnation.
“His arrogance and hypocrisy knows no bounds,” Representative Elise Stefanik, an upstate Republican who was recently re-elected to a fourth term, wrote on Twitter. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is hardly alone in the heightened scrutiny of public figures, particularly for not abiding by the same coronavirus rules they have implored their constituents to follow.
This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was chastised after he attended a lobbyist’s private birthday dinner at a Napa Valley restaurant in which guests mingled in close quarters without masks.
By Monday evening, Mr. Cuomo had rethought his Thanksgiving plans. His office described Mr. Cuomo’s initial words as a well-meaning fib told — via the radio — to his mother, noting that had he couched his statement by saying “plans change.” The governor would no longer be having Thanksgiving dinner with his mother and two of his daughters.
Facing a spike in coronavirus infections, the government in Hong Kong ordered all bars and nightclubs to shut starting on Thursday.
The city’s fourth wave of cases has emerged under cooler temperatures and what officials warned of as fatigue after months of social distancing. A cluster that began at a dance studio has since spread to similar venues across the city, bringing infections to another high since the summer.
Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s health secretary, said that all bars, nightclubs, bathhouses and rented rooms for private parties must close, and that live performances and dancing would be banned. Banquets could have 10 tables at most, with each seating up to four people, she said.
The city’s authorities have toughened and relaxed its social-distancing rules with rises and falls in coronavirus cases. On Tuesday, Hong Kong reported 80 new cases, including 54 linked to the dancers, bringing the cluster that originated at Starlight Dance Club — a ballroom and Latin dance studio — to 187 cases, a health department spokeswoman said.
Also on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, defended a plan to pay about $645 to those who test positive and who are in financial difficulty. Critics said the government was giving people an incentive to intentionally infect themselves, but officials have since clarified the eligibility requirements for the payments. Mrs. Lam said it was intended to help those who would lose income as a result of getting infected.
For banks, credit card companies and some Bitcoin advocates, the demise of each unit of cash would be welcome news. For small businesses that rely on coins, it’s a slow-rolling earthquake. For archaeologists and collectors, it’s bittersweet at best and a tragedy at worst.
As the coin shortage reached its worst in June, trade groups for grocers, gas stations and convenience stores pleaded for help from the government, calling the coin shortage an emergency that threatened their ability to serve customers and stay in business.
The Federal Reserve started rationing coins, and the U.S. Mint kicked production into high gear, urging people to put spare change back in the economy. Major chains like Walmart and CVS asked customers to pay with cards or use exact change, and Chipotle was accused of keeping the change from customers who paid with cash.
While small businesses have had to adapt reluctantly to a cashless world, many tech firms, banks and credit card companies have pushed for one, said Jay Zagorsky, a professor at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.
“The economy is bifurcating, sort of splitting in two parts, and there’s one part that’s taking a beating,” he said.