The World Health Organization approved one Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccine and could soon approve another. The Biden administration has backed waiving intellectual property protections for vaccines, which could make it easier for more countries to make them.
But the campaign to vaccinate the world is floundering, and experts warn it will take more to reverse the trend.
The need is urgent: The virus is spreading more rapidly than ever, driven largely by surges in South America and India. The longer it can spread unchecked, the more time it has to mutate into more contagious variants that could evade the protections of vaccines.
Rich countries have been hoarding doses — the United States has given at least one shot to over 44 percent of its population, while the figure in Africa is 1 percent, according to a University of Oxford database. The global vaccination drive has been further slowed by the enormous need for vaccines within China and India, two major manufacturers that are keeping more doses for domestic use.
The W.H.O.’s approval on Friday of China’s Sinopharm vaccine was celebrated by scientists because it allows the shot to be included in Covax, the sputtering global initiative to promote equitable vaccine distribution. As of Tuesday, Covax had shipped 54 million doses, less than a quarter of its earlier April target.
Vaccine access could improve even more next week when the W.H.O. considers another Chinese shot, made by Sinovac. But the fanfare may be short-lived. While China has claimed it can make up to 5 billion doses by the end of this year, Chinese officials say the country is struggling to manufacture enough doses for its own population and are cautioning a pandemic-weary world to keep expectations in check.
“This should be the golden time for China to practice its vaccine diplomacy. The problem is, at the same time, China itself is facing a shortage,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So in terms of global access to vaccines, I don’t expect the situation to significantly improve in the coming two to three months.”
Severe production problems in India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, have left just 2.3 percent of its population fully vaccinated. In some states, people are being turned away from vaccination centers that have run out of doses. As India has been crushed by a record virus surge, it has halted vaccine exports. That has delayed critical Covax shipments.
India’s government has promised to fast-track approvals of foreign-made vaccines. But a waiver of patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, which the Biden administration is backing, would need approval from the World Trade Organization. And even then, experts warn that pharmaceutical companies in India and elsewhere would need technological help to make the vaccines and time to ramp up production.
Pledges by rich nations to donate vaccines to poor countries — 60 million AstraZeneca doses from the United States, one million AstraZeneca doses from Sweden — have been described by experts as symbolic, haphazard gestures.
Beyond availability, distributing vaccines in the developing world means overcoming deep-seated logistical obstacles and hesitancy. CARE, a global nonprofit group, has estimated that for every $1 spent on vaccine doses, another $5 was needed to guarantee that they made it from airport runways into people’s arms. In the absence of enough funding for chronically underpaid health workers and vaccination training, many of the doses that have been delivered are sitting in warehouses, with expiration dates rapidly approaching.
Scientists remain hopeful that a second wave of Covid-19 vaccines could ease world demand. Novavax, a company based in Maryland whose vaccine uses coronavirus proteins, is expected to apply for U.S. authorization in the next few weeks. In India, the pharmaceutical company Biological E is testing another protein-based vaccine that was developed by researchers in Texas. In Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam, researchers are starting trials for a Covid-19 shot that can be mass-produced in chicken eggs.
Vaccine experts are particularly curious to see late-stage clinical trial results of a small German company called CureVac, expected as early as next week. The vaccine is made with the same RNA method as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, but it has an important advantage. While those two vaccines have to be kept in a deep freezer, CureVac’s vaccine stays stable in a refrigerator — meaning it could more easily deliver the newly discovered power of RNA vaccines to hard-hit parts of the world.
With a nationwide state of emergency expiring at midnight on Sunday, Spain is preparing to remove most of its Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, but a patchwork of regional measures is likely to follow.
Only four of Spain’s 17 regions plan to keep the nationwide 11 p.m. curfew that was imposed under the six-month emergency. But some regions are keeping municipalities with higher coronavirus infection rates under stricter lockdown rules until their outbreaks subside.
In Madrid, the leader of the region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, fresh off a landslide re-election victory, plans to lift a ban on visitors in private homes and to allow restaurants and bars to remain open one hour later, until midnight.
Ms. Ayuso successfully campaigned on a “freedom” slogan even as the virus continued to challenge the Spanish capital, with Covid-19 patients occupying a far higher share of intensive-care beds than the national average.
The debate over whether to prolong restrictions has landed in courtrooms in some parts of Spain. The regional government of the Basque Country wanted to keep tougher rules in place beyond Sunday, including a ban on residents traveling outside the region. But a local court struck down the plan, saying that it could not be enforced once the nationwide state of emergency had ended.
Spain is recording about 6,200 new cases a day, the lowest in a month, and has seen cases decline by 29 percent over the past 14 days, according to a New York Times database. There have been more than 3.5 million confirmed cases of the virus in the country, and more than 78,700 people have died.
In a crowd of blue and white protective gowns gathered around the burning pyres of a cremation ground, Jitender Singh Shunty’s bright yellow turban stands out.
For 25 years, the former businessman has run a volunteer organization that helps poor people in New Delhi cremate their loved ones with dignity. Hundreds of families have said their final goodbyes at the Seemapuri crematorium that he runs in the eastern part of India’s capital city. But the last month, amid the devastation of India’s second coronavirus wave, has been the hardest.
“I used to get six to eight bodies each day before the pandemic,” Mr. Shunty said. “Now I get around 100.”
Scenes of crowded crematories have symbolized the anguish in India, and for many stand as a rebuke to a government accused of mismanaging the crisis and undercounting the dead. On Friday, India reported 4,187 new deaths from the virus, the most in a single day since the pandemic began. More than 400,000 new infections are recorded daily.
Beyond the harrowing statistics, there is a painful routine of trauma — one that Mr. Shunty and his band of volunteers help grieving families complete, even as their loved ones’ final rites are stripped of the usual space and dignity.
About half of the bodies Mr. Shunty, receives are people who died in their homes, and he said these deaths often aren’t included in the official tallies. He and his large team of volunteers collect the dead from homes, hospitals and morgues, crisscrossing the city in a fleet of hearses. They disinfect them, wrap them in shrouds and transport them to the pyres.
At night, Mr. Shunty, 58, sleeps in his car to avoid becoming infected. His wife and sons are sick at home with the virus. Three of his drivers are infected. His manager is in intensive care.
Before he founded his organization, the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, Mr. Shunty was a prosperous businessman. One day more than two decades ago, he noticed a man picking up pieces of half-burnt wood at a cremation ground. When Mr. Shunty confronted him for stealing, the man said he didn’t have the money to cremate his son.
“I couldn’t believe that in this megacity where people spend millions on their homes, weddings, and birthdays, here was someone who could not even afford a funeral,” Mr. Shunty said.
He has since dedicated himself to the final rites of the poor. His organization, which includes a large team of volunteers and a fleet of hearses, runs on donations as much as on a dedication to the concept of sewa, or selfless service, a tenet of his Sikh faith.
He veers between sadness and rage as he describes a collapse of governance during India’s second wave. For families these days, the crematorium he runs is the last stop of an ordeal that could have involved dragging their loved one from hospital to hospital in search of a bed, lining up for hours for a cylinder of oxygen, begging strangers for help.
“Delhi has been abandoned, left to its fate by the government,” Mr. Shunty said. “Even oxygen is not free anymore.”
New coronavirus cases have fallen drastically in New Jersey, where at times this spring the virus was spreading faster than anywhere else in the United States.
Over the past two weeks, the state has seen its average number of new daily drop by 61 percent, according to a New York Times database.
New Jersey’s case numbers are dropping along with the rest of the country’s. But the state’s decline is the steepest in the United States and its rate of new daily cases per person is now just above the national average.
“Clearly vaccinations are playing a role in this,” said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the New Jersey Department of Health Communicable Disease Service, although he warned that while cases are declining, they are still higher than the number of infections in the state last summer. “It certainly is too early to declare victory,” he said.
Behind New Jersey is neighboring New York, with a 48 percent decline, and Michigan, which despite a 41 percent drop still has the highest rate of new cases in the country. In Puerto Rico, cases are also down 61 percent.
The steady decline in New Jersey comes as the state prepares for a broad reopening on May 19, when it will lift almost all of its remaining virus restrictions, including most capacity limits.
“The good news is now becoming almost overwhelming, and that’s a good thing,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy said in public remarks on Thursday.
Mr. Murphy has cited the state’s rising vaccination rates as the cause of the reopening. As of Friday morning, more than 3.4 million New Jersey residents had been vaccinated, according to state health data.
Mr. Murphy has set a goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million adult residents by the end of June.
As of Friday, 40 percent of the state’s adult population was fully vaccinated and 54 percent had received at least one dose, according to a New York Times database, outpacing the nation as a whole.
But as the demand for vaccines wanes, New Jersey has joined other states and cities in turning to an array of not-so-subtle incentives to get shots into the arms of more residents. Residents who get their first vaccine dose in May are eligible for a “shot and a beer” at participating breweries in the state.