Home / World News / Covid-19 Live Updates: Undercutting Scientists, Trump Says Tightening Vaccine Guidelines ‘Sounds Like a Political Move’

Covid-19 Live Updates: Undercutting Scientists, Trump Says Tightening Vaccine Guidelines ‘Sounds Like a Political Move’

Trump renews his criticism of the F.D.A., suggesting it may be driven by politics.

President Trump said Wednesday that the White House “may or may not” approve new Food and Drug Administration guidelines requiring outside experts to weigh in before the agency approves a coronavirus vaccine, and said the plan “sounds like a political move,” undercutting government scientists who had said the opposite just hours earlier.

The president’s comments to reporters in the White House briefing room came after four of the administration’s top health officials who are helping to steer the government’s coronavirus response appeared in front of a Senate panel in an effort to bolster public trust in the F.D.A.

The officials told the panel that they had complete faith in the agency and that science and data — not politics — were guiding its decisions.

Their testimony came as the F.D.A. prepared to issue stricter guidelines for the emergency authorization of any new coronavirus vaccine. That would add a new layer to the vetting process.

But Mr. Trump has insisted a vaccine may be ready as early as next month — and he sounded more than a little skeptical about the new guidelines.

“That has to be approved by the White House,” he said, adding, “We may or may not approve it.”

The president then said, “I think that was a political move more than anything else.”

Asked about it a second time, Mr. Trump doubled down, repeating that the White House “may or may not” approve the new guidelines.

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, the doctors — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Admiral Brett P. Giroir, the coronavirus testing czar — defended the scientific integrity of the F.D.A. amid mounting evidence that President Trump and his administration have interfered with their agencies’ decision-making and growing public doubts about a coronavirus vaccine.

A day after reported U.S. deaths from the pandemic passed 200,000, lawmakers at the hearing pressed the scientists for assurances that the agency was not being influenced by politics. They were assured that this was not the case.

In a show of public support that would have been unnecessary in the pre-Trump era, all four doctors pledged to personally take any vaccine approved by the F.D.A. and said they would encourage their families to do the same.

The feverish race for a coronavirus vaccine got an infusion of energy on Wednesday as Johnson & Johnson announced that it has begun the final stage of its clinical trials, the fourth company to do so in the United States, which has passed a grim milestone of 200,000 deaths from the pandemic.

Johnson & Johnson is a couple of months behind the leaders, but its vaccine trial will be by far the largest, enrolling 60,000 participants. The company said it could know by the end of this year if its vaccine works.

And its vaccine has potentially big advantages over some competitors. It uses a technology that has a long safety record in vaccines against other diseases. Its vaccine could require just one shot instead of two. And unlike other vaccine candidates, it does not have to be kept frozen as it is delivered to hospitals and other places where it will be given to patients, simplifying the logistics of hundreds of millions of doses.

“Big news,” Mr. Trump tweeted about the trial on Wednesday morning. “@FDA must move quickly!”

The president has repeatedly claimed that a vaccine will be ready before Election Day, and has urged federal regulators to act quickly to approve one, raising fears that they will bow to the pressure and rush their vetting process. The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed program has invested more than $10 billion in private companies’ coronavirus vaccines to date, including about $1.5 billion to Johnson & Johnson.

Facing criticism over secrecy, several companies — including Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday — have taken the rare step of releasing the detailed blueprints of their trials, which are typically considered proprietary. And the F.D.A. is expected this week to release stricter guidelines outlining the criteria it will use to vet clinical trial data.

“We need multiple vaccines to work,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who led the development of the technology used in Johnson & Johnson’s trial. “There are seven billion people in the world, and no single vaccine supplier will be able to manufacture at that scale.”

Johnson & Johnson’s advanced trial, known as a Phase 3 trial, started on Monday. At a news conference, Dr. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, said the company might be able to determine by the end of the year if the vaccine is safe and effective.

Johnson & Johnson has begun manufacturing the vaccine on an industrial scale to build up a supply that can be released immediately if the vaccine is authorized, Dr. Stoffels said in an interview on Wednesday. He expected to have tens of millions of doses ready by the end of the year. “Then we can ramp up to many more batches,” he said.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine uses an adenovirus to carry a gene from the coronavirus into human cells. The cell then produces coronavirus proteins, but not the coronavirus itself. These proteins can potentially prime the immune system to fight off a later infection by the virus.

Adenovirus vaccines must be kept refrigerated but does not need to be frozen, as the two front-runner vaccines, by Moderna and Pfizer, do. The freezing requirement could make the distribution of those vaccines difficult, especially to places without advanced medical facilities.

Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines also require two jabs given a few weeks apart, a significant logistical hurdle.

France raised its Covid-19 alert level in a number of areas across the country on Wednesday, and the authorities ramped up restrictions on public gatherings in several cities to prevent the health system from buckling under an influx of patients.

The new measures, which will take effect in the coming days, include the total closure of all bars and restaurants in the cities of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille and a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people in Paris and a handful of other French cities.

Olivier Véran, the health minister, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening that the situation in France was “continuing to deteriorate.” The positivity rate for the virus has passed 6 percent, he said.

Mr. Véran said that the authorities were particularly worried because French hospitals were starting to feel the strain from new Covid-19 patients, who now represent nearly 20 percent of patients in intensive care across the country.

France is still far from the wave of hospitalizations it suffered earlier this year, but Mr. Véran said it was becoming increasingly hard to defer treatments or surgeries to make room for Covid-19 patients, as was widely done during the nation’s lockdown last spring.

Mr. Véran said that the new restrictions would be temporary and re-evaluated on a week-by-week basis and that the government would do all it could to avoid a second nationwide lockdown. He urged citizens to help avoid that.

“You can’t be extremely vigilant on the bus, in the metro, at the office, in shops,” he said, “and then completely let up your vigilance when you are in a bar, at home, or with family and friends.”

In other news around the world:

  • Israel will tighten its existing coronavirus restrictions to a nationwide “full lockdown” on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said. The country successfully limited the spread of the virus in the spring, but its infection rate — nearly 30,000 new cases over the past week — has recently spiraled into one of the world’s worst. The new measures come as people prepare to celebrate some of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, and will allow worshipers to gather in groups of up to 20 within one kilometer of their homes.

  • Bars and restaurants in the Czech Republic will have to close at 10 p.m. beginning on Thursday, and the numbers of people at outside sports events will be limited to 2,000 seated fans. In the past seven days, the country has averaged at least 2,000 new cases per day, and it trails only Spain in Europe with the highest number of new cases per capita.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said Wednesday in a rare televised national address that the country had clearly entered a second wave of infections and warned that the fall outbreak could be much worse than the spring’s. Mr. Trudeau noted that on March 13, when Canada went into lockdown, there were 47 new confirmed cases and that on Tuesday the country reported well over 1,000 new cases. Many provinces slowly reopened over the summer. “It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving,” Mr. Trudeau said, “but we still have a shot at Christmas.”

  • Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes of Belgium has taken a novel approach to reversing a rise in cases in her country: She loosened the rules. Ms. Wilmes said on Wednesday that masks would be required only in crowded places, not everywhere outdoors, as she had ordered in the summer. And while she still encouraged people to be in close contact with no more than five others at a time, broader socializing will be allowed if people keep their distance from one another. Many Belgians have clearly grown tired of strict social restrictions. By simplifying and clarifying them, Ms. Wilmes was attempting to reinvigorate public support — not to defeat the virus, but to live with it.

  • The regional government of Madrid said on Wednesday that it would request “urgent military and logistics” support from the central government to carry out tasks like setting up emergency tents for the homeless and disinfecting public areas. Spain is in the midst of a spike in cases centered in the capital, parts of which were again put under lockdown this week.

  • Foreigners with valid residence permits for work, personal matters and family reunions in China will be allowed to enter the country again without having to apply for new visas starting next week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. Such foreign nationals have been barred since March.

  • About 600 pubs that serve only drinks can reopen in Northern Ireland on Wednesday for the first time in six months. Pubs that serve food were allowed to reopen in July. But they may face new restrictions after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain announced this week that pubs, bars and restaurants in England would be required to close by 10 p.m. starting Thursday.

At least one coronavirus case had been reported in more than 100 school buildings and early childhood centers in the New York City school system by the first day of in-person instruction on Monday, according to the Department of Education.

Nearly all the buildings remained open, though six were closed temporarily, in accordance with city guidelines that only those schools that report at least two cases in different classrooms will be shut.

The cases occurred between Sept. 8, when teachers and staff members reported to schools, and Monday, when the first students entered classrooms.

In dozens of cases, the infected individuals got the positive test results and did not report to work, the department said. Others did report to school, and their close contacts in the buildings were told to quarantine for two weeks.

Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that the cases included a “handful” of students, but that “the vast majority were among staff before schools reopened for students.”

Some public health experts said the statistics reflect a new reality.

With in-person learning taking place in a system with 1.1 million schoolchildren, 75,000 teachers, and 2,500 school buildings and early childhood centers, new cases will most likely be a daily occurrence, they said. Individual building closings will also be common, they said.

Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said New York City families should be prepared for a constant game of Whac-a-Mole. The virus is likely to re-emerge repeatedly in school buildings until there is either a vaccine or very frequent testing, he said.

Ideally, Dr. Mina said, 50 percent of all students and staff members should be tested three times a week.

In other news from around the United States:

  • A school district in Wisconsin where schools have reopened over the objections of the local teachers’ union was forced to move seven of its schools to virtual learning this week after more than 100 teachers called in sick to protest the district’s decision to hold in-person classes this fall. The protests in the Kenosha Unified School District involve only a fraction of the city’s 1,600 teachers, but they underscore the deep worries of many teachers nationally about returning to classrooms during the pandemic.

  • Federal health officials on Wednesday reported a sharp drop in the number of children from low-income families who received dental care, vaccinations and preventive screenings this spring, after the pandemic began, compared with the same period last year. A data analysis found there were 1.7 million fewer vaccinations given to Medicaid beneficiaries 2 or younger, a drop of 22 percent, and 3.2 million fewer screenings to detect autism or developmental delays, a drop of 44 percent.

  • As public health officials raise alarms about surging coronavirus cases among young people, a new study by researchers from four U.S. universities suggests that Americans under 25 are most likely to believe virus-related misinformation about the severity of the disease and how it originated. In a survey of 21,196 people across the country, respondents 18 to 25 had an 18 percent probability of believing a false claim, compared with 9 percent for those over 65.

  • Wall Street’s sell-off resumed on Wednesday as a drop in the shares of large technology companies dragged stocks to their fifth decline in the last six sessions. The S & P 500 fell more than 2 percent while the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite dropped 3 percent.

  • For a fourth time, a game that had publicly become the University of Houston’s “season opener” was scratched. The game against the University of North Texas had been set for Saturday. College football schedules have been upended by the virus. In a statement, North Texas said four people associated with its football program had tested positive for the virus. But contact tracing, the university said, “left the football program unable to field a team for a game this week.”

  • Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri and his wife, Teresa, have both tested positive for the virus, officials said Wednesday. The governor’s office said the first lady had been tested after “displaying minor symptoms.” Kelli Jones, the communications director for the governor, said Mrs. Parson’s symptoms included “a little, tiny cough and a little sniffle.” The governor has no symptoms at this time, officials said. All official events have been canceled until further notice, the governor’s office said, and the governor’s staff has been tested and is awaiting results.

  • Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana announced on Wednesday that the state would gradually enter Phase 5 of reopening, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 17. “The numbers continue to track in the right direction,” Mr. Holcomb said. In the next phase, he said, residents would still be required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, but size limits on social gatherings and meetings would be lifted. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs would be allowed to operate at full capacity, he added. Indiana began easing restrictions in May, but by July, because of an increase in cases, Mr. Holcomb paused progress toward reopening.

  • The Baltimore city schools system is planning to lay off around 450 temporary employees and freeze hiring throughout the school system as it seeks to reduce a $21 million budget gap. Across the country, school districts struggling with the additional costs of remote learning and social distancing, combined with funding cuts, have also turned to layoffs. “Nobody’s coming to save us,” said the Baltimore schools chief executive officer, Sonja Santelises.

A South Korean government official apparently trying to defect to North Korea was shot and killed by troops in the North who set his body on fire for fear he might be carrying the coronavirus, South Korean officials said on Thursday.

The violent episode threatens to further derail diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The official who was killed was a first mate on a government ship​ monitoring fishing boats ​near a disputed sea border ​with North Korea early Monday. After he went missing, South Korean ships and planes conducted an extensive search but could not find him before he drifted into North Korean waters.

A North Korean fishing patrol boat found the man wearing a life jacket and clinging to a floatable device on Tuesday afternoon, South Korean officials said. Hours later, they said, a North Korean Navy ship approached the man and opened fire under orders from higher-ups, although it was clear he was trying to defect.

North Korean soldiers wearing gas masks and other protective gear then poured oil on his body and set it on fire, they said.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry called the killing a stunning and “atrocious” act and demanded that the North punish those responsible.

North Korea has yet to comment on the shooting. If confirmed by the North, it would be the first time ​that the country’s government has killed a South Korean citizen in its territory since 2008.

In July, North Korea locked down a city near its border with South Korea after a ​​North Korean man who had defected to the South three years ago ​swam across the western border to return to the city. The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, declared a “maximum” national emergency for fear the man may “have been infected with the vicious virus​.”​

But South Korean officials have said there is no proof the man carried the coronavirus. Experts are also skeptical of North Korea’s persistent claim that it has no confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Indonesia’s Covid-19 death toll was on track to surpass 10,000 on Thursday, as new cases continued to surge across the nation and within the president’s cabinet.

The world’s fourth-most-populous country already has the second-highest death toll from the coronavirus in the Asia-Pacific region, after India. Experts believe that many more deaths have gone unreported in Indonesia because many patients suspected of having the disease died before their test results were returned.

Cases are still climbing, too: Indonesia, which until last week had never reached 4,000 new cases in a single day, has now passed that mark four times in the past five days. Over the past week it has reported nearly 30,000 new cases, on par with Israel, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

The minister of religious affairs, Fachrul Razi, 73, became the third member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet to test positive, his office said Monday. The ministers of transportation and fisheries have both recovered but a top Jakarta government official died last week.

Indonesia was slow to adopt coronavirus restrictions earlier this year, then quick to lift them in the hope of reviving the economy. Jakarta, the capital, recently imposed a partial shutdown for the second time. But the government’s overall approach appears to have backfired as cases keep rising and the economy sputters.

The country’s economy is expected to contract this year for the first time since the Asian economic crisis of 1998, the finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, said Tuesday. She forecast a decline in the gross domestic product of as much as 1.7 percent this year.

The government is urging members of the public to wear masks and is imposing fines of up to $16.75 for those not wearing one. A few have been told to lie in a coffin as punishment. Others have chosen to dig graves for Covid victims rather than pay a fine.

Health experts are concerned that campaign events for regional elections planned for December could cause new incidents of superspreading. And they worry that seasonal flooding could soon displace thousands from their homes and cause more contagion as people crowd into shelters.

They also fear that the country’s beleaguered medical system could be overwhelmed by a surge of patients. Some hospitals are nearing capacity and more than 4,300 patients with moderate or no symptoms are being housed at a Jakarta athletic village.

“We really need the public’s assistance to carry out health protocols, because if we continue like this, all our existing systems will collapse,” the national medical volunteer coordinator, Jossep William, told reporters on Monday.

Helsinki’s airport enlists dogs to sniff out the virus on passengers.

When air travelers arrive at Helsinki’s airport and collect their luggage, they are now invited to wipe their necks for a quick 10-second coronavirus test that does not involve an uncomfortable nasal swab. After placing the sweaty wipe in a box, it is taken behind a wall to be sniffed. By a dog.

A couple of these coronavirus-sniffing canines began work at the Finnish airport on Wednesday as part of a pilot program that aims to detect the virus from an arriving passenger’s sweat.

And they seem to be doing the job, a top researcher from the University of Helsinki who is monitoring the trial said.

In the first stage of the trial, the dogs could sniff out the virus in a person who is asymptomatic, or before the symptoms appear, the researcher, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, said.

International airports have used various methods to detect the virus in travelers, including saliva screenings, temperature checks and nasal swabs. But researchers in Finland say that using dogs could prove cheaper, faster and more effective.

Dogs have long been used to sniff out contraband, and they have also been trained to detect illnesses such as cancer and malaria.

In July, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover in Germany found that after a week of training, dogs could distinguish saliva samples of people infected with the coronavirus from noninfected samples with a 94 percent success rate.

What does the virus smells like? You would have to ask the dog, because it is so far a scent undetectable by humans.

The mirrors of a barbershop in the Philippines, which has been under lockdown longer than any other country in Asia, exemplify the heavy toll that the virus has exacted on the country’s people.

The Philippines has been in various stages of lockdown since March, when President Rodrigo Duterte first locked down the country’s largest island, including the capital, Manila.

The Manila salon, Jolog’s Barbershop, is one of many businesses that was initially forced to close when the virus was first detected, but has since been allowed to reopen subject to stringent health codes and measures.

For decades, Jolog’s has been something of a microcosm of the country, its mirrors reflecting a diversity of faces from across society. But these days, the din of chatter has been silenced, and the few people who nervously trickle in are in no mood for small talk.

Barbers at the shop are required to wear yellow medical coveralls and face shields. A sign taped above a mirror reads, “No face mask, not allowed.” Only four customers can be accommodated at any given time, and they are told to disinfect before entering.

“It’s very hard to get my mind wrapped around this,” the owner, Rollie Magalona, said. “It used to be that we always have customers lined up. Now, we try to stay open until evening, but the streets are already deserted. What is worse, we may also get infected. You never know.”

Even with restrictions in place, the Philippines is struggling to control the outbreak. As of Wednesday, it had so far recorded nearly 300,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths.

Already, about 27.3 million Filipinos have lost their jobs because of the resulting economic downturn. In the second quarter of the year, the country entered a recession, dropping 16.5 percent — its worst performance in nearly four decades.

New York City will furlough more than 9,000 employees this year as it grapples with substantial budget deficits wrought by the pandemic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the announcement on Wednesday, a week after he revealed he would furlough much of his City Hall staff, himself included. The action will save the city about $21 million, on top of the roughly $860,000 to be saved with the City Hall furlough. The furloughs will last five workdays, and employees will have to take them between October and March 2021.

These actions will not move the budgetary needle much. This year the city closed its $88 billion budget with an unspecified $1 billion in labor savings. The mayor’s office has since been negotiating with labor unions to find those savings, and the furloughs indicate the kinds of measures the city will have to consider if it wants to avoid 22,000 layoffs.

“No one wants to see layoffs, but unfortunately they’re still on the table,” Mr. de Blasio said Wednesday. “This at least gives us a little more relief while we continue those conversations and try and find a larger solution.”

In other New York City news:

  • The Metropolitan Opera said on Wednesday that the pandemic has forced it to cancel its entire 2020-21 season, prolonging one of the gravest crises in the Met’s 137-year history and keeping the nation’s largest performing arts organization dark until next September. The decision is likely to send ripples of concern through New York City and the rest of the country, as arts institutions grapple with the question of when it will be safe again to perform indoors.

  • The city’s Health Department warned that the virus was spreading at increasing levels in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, especially among some of the city’s Hasidic communities, which were devastated by Covid-19 in the spring but had seen few cases in the summer. “This is something that requires urgent action,” the mayor said on Wednesday, adding that the city health department had closed two yeshivas in connection with the uptick and that police officers would step up enforcement of public health rules.

  • The New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will be largely virtual this year, organizers said on Wednesday. Details on the ceremony were not immediately disclosed. But organizers said that the typical gathering of hundreds of thousands of revelers to watch a ball drop and be showered in confetti would be replaced by virtual events and a small group of people in the square “who will reflect the themes, challenges and inspirations of 2020.”

Reporting was contributed by Matt Apuzzo, Aurelien Breeden, Choe Sang-Hun, Michael Cooper, Ben Dooley, Rick Gladstone, Hana de Goeij, Joseph Goldstein, Abby Goodnough, Jason Gutierrez, Mike Ives, Corina Knoll, Sharon LaFraniere, Patricia Mazzei, Raphael Minder, Zachary Montague, Aimee Ortiz, Richard C. Paddock, Tariq Panja, Elian Peltier, Campbell Robertson, Dana Rubinstein, Adam Satariano, Anna Schaverien, Christopher F. Schuetze, Dera Menra Sijabat, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Kate Taylor, Noah Weiland, Billy Witz, Elaine Yu, Mihir Zaveri and Carl Zimmer.

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