From 'Zero' to Surge

From ‘Zero’ to Surge

New Zealand and Hong Kong’s surges come after two years of very low cases. 

This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. .

Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

  • The Biden administration asked Congress for $22.5 billion to bolster its Covid-19 response.

  • The U.S. surgeon general called on Big Tech to turn over Covid misinformation data.

  • Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said he had long Covid and unveiled a bill aimed at treating the illness.

  • Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and a vaccine tracker.

Health workers handing out rapid tests in Auckland, New Zealand, last month.Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

From “zero” to surge

For much of the pandemic, Hong Kong and New Zealand were models of success in the war against the coronavirus. Their cautious “zero Covid” approaches kept cases and deaths low, and daily life has continued in a relatively normal way.

Now, with the Omicron variant walloping much of Asia, both places are experiencing frightening surges — but in strikingly divergent ways. The main difference, according to my colleague Alexandra Stevenson, is that Hong Kong didn’t see Omicron coming.

Alexandra, who is based there, told me that until a few weeks ago, she knew just one person in the city who had contracted Covid. “It would have been remarkable to come across someone here who had Covid,” she said. “It was so rare.” The same could be said for New Zealand, an island nation that instituted strict travel restrictions and lockdowns.

In Hong Kong, bodies are now piling up in hospital hallways because officials can’t move the dead fast enough, and the autonomous city-state has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.

Daily virus cases in Hong Kong, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

Part of the reason is low vaccination rates — particularly among older adults, who in many cases have fallen prey to misinformation. Among people above 80, for example, only 30 percent are vaccinated.

“There’s this idea here that you need to be healthy enough to be vaccinated, so if you have chronic health problems you should talk to your doctor first,” Alexandra said.

In New Zealand, by contrast, the explosion of cases came after the government carried out an extremely effective vaccination campaign. By the time Omicron arrived, the country was well protected, even after the government loosened restrictions. Ninety-five percent of New Zealanders over 12 have been vaccinated, and 57 percent have received a booster shot.

Daily virus cases in New Zealand, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

Still, the country is experiencing a jolt after spending most of the pandemic isolated from the virus: Covid is spreading there at what may be the fastest rate in the world, and experts believe that half the population could be infected within three months.

The government is trying to prepare the public for the psychological shift. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week that “very soon we will all know people who have Covid-19 or we will potentially get it ourselves.”

It’s a similar shift that will be required across the region, Alexandra said.

“A number of Asian countries spent the pandemic being very cautious, trying to trying to keep outbreaks at bay,” she said. “Whereas now a lot of Asian countries are getting much more comfortable with the idea that this is endemic — it’s going to be here for a long time and we have to loosen up.”

A male rhesus macaque monkey.Credit…Jean-Francois Monier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Erectile dysfunction, anosmia and long Covid

A pair of studies conducted on animals infected with the coronavirus are giving us new insights into two symptoms of long Covid: anosmia, or the loss of smell, and erectile dysfunction.

Let’s start with anosmia. A new study examined golden hamsters that had been infected with the coronavirus and tracked the damage to their olfactory systems over time.

(How could you know if golden hamsters could smell? Researchers didn’t feed them for several hours and then buried Cocoa Puffs in their bedding to see if they could find the cereal.)

The research, which also examined tissue specimens from infected humans, seems to have settled the debate over whether the coronavirus infects the nerve cells that detect odors: It does not.

But the researchers found that the virus did attack other supporting cells that line the nasal cavity. Immune cells then flood the region to fight the virus. The subsequent inflammation wreaks havoc on smell receptors, essentially short-circuiting them, the researchers reported.

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U.S. vaccination rates. Rural parts of the United States have fallen even further behind urban areas in vaccinating people against Covid-19, the Centers Disease Control and Prevention reported. The gap is especially pronounced among eligible children.

New Zealand’s Covid reckoning. For much of the past two years, the coronavirus was a phantom presence in New Zealand. Now, the island nation is being hit by a major outbreak of the Omicron variant, with the virus spreading at an extremely fast rate.

New research on symptoms. Research on monkeys found that the coronavirus may infect tissue within the male genital tract, suggesting that erectile dysfunction reported by some Covid patients may be caused directly by the virus. Meanwhile, a study may settle the debate over how Covid robs people of their sense of smell.

N.F.L. drops protocols. The league and the players’ union agreed to suspend all Covid-19 protocols, effective immediately. The N.F.L., which is not in season, is the first of the major professional sports leagues in the United States to halt its coronavirus-related policies

The paper significantly advances the understanding of how cells critical to the sense of smell are affected by the virus, despite the fact that they are not directly infected.

And now onto genitals: A group of researchers in Louisiana who were scanning the bodies of three infected rhesus macaque monkeys were surprised to find the virus within the male genital tract.

The researchers discovered that the virus infected the prostate, penis, testicles and surrounding blood vessels in the monkeys. The finding suggests that symptoms like erectile dysfunction — reported by about 10 to 20 percent of men with Covid — may be caused directly by the virus, not by inflammation or fever.

Men infected with the virus are three to six times as likely as others to develop erectile dysfunction, which is believed to be an indicator of long Covid. Patients have also reported symptoms such as testicular pain, reduced sperm counts and decreased fertility.

The paper’s senior author said he next planned to determine whether the testicles were a reservoir for the coronavirus, as had been hypothesized by some scientists. He will also look at whether the virus infects tissue in the female reproductive system.

What else we’re following

  • A C.D.C. study found a widening rural-urban vaccine gap: In rural areas, coverage among people at least 5 years old was 59 percent, compared with 75 percent in urban counties.

  • A new study from Japan found that Omicron was 40 percent more deadly than the flu, Bloomberg reports.

  • During the Omicron surge, Black New Yorkers were hospitalized at a rate more than twice that of white residents.

  • As vaccine demand drops in the U.S., states are scrambling to use doses before they expire, The Associated Press reports.

  • All of Australia is now reopened to vaccinated travelers.

  • Philadelphia dropped its mask mandate.

  • The N.F.L. dropped its Covid protocols, the first major American sports league to do so.

  • Novak Djokovic’s bet that countries would relax their vaccination requirements in time for him to play major tennis tournaments has begun to pay off.

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