BRUSSELS — The European Union is in the process of finalizing emergency legislation that would give it the power to restrict exports of Covid-19 vaccines for six weeks to ease supply shortages. It’s a sharp escalation in the union’s response to supply shortages at home that have created a political maelstrom as the continent confronts a rising third wave.
The draft legislation, which is set to be made public on Wednesday, was reviewed by The New York Times and confirmed by two E.U. officials involved in the drafting process. The new rules will make it harder for pharmaceutical companies producing Covid-19 vaccines in the European Union to export them and is likely to disrupt supply to Britain.
The European Union has been primarily at loggerheads with AstraZeneca since it drastically cut its supply to the bloc, citing production problems in January, and the company is the main target of the new rules. But the legislation, which could block the export of millions of doses from E.U. ports, could also affect the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Britain is by far the biggest benefactor of E.U. exports and will stand to lose the most by these rules. But they could also be applied to curb exports to other countries like Canada, the second-largest recipient of E.U.-made vaccines, as well as Israel, which gets doses from the bloc but is very advanced in its vaccination campaign and therefore seen as less needy.
“We are in the crisis of the century. And I’m not ruling out anything for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said last week in comments that paved the way for the new rules. “Human lives, civil liberties and also the prosperity of our economy are dependent on that, on the speed of vaccination, on moving forward.”
The legislation is unlikely to affect the United States, which has so far received fewer than one million doses from E.U.-based facilities.
The European Union allowed pharmaceutical companies to export more than 40 million vaccine doses to 33 countries between February and mid-March, with 10 million going to Britain and 4.3 million to Canada. The bloc has kept about 70 million at home and distributed them to its 27 member nations. But it has come under criticism for permitting exports in the first place, while the United States and Britain practically locked up domestic production for domestic use through contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
The outcome has been a troubled vaccine rollout for the world’s richest group of nations. The impact of the failures is being exacerbated by a third wave that is sending health care systems across the continent into emergency mode and ushering in painful new lockdowns.
Meanwhile, recipients of vaccines produced in E.U. member countries, as well as in other rich nations, have raced ahead with their inoculation campaigns. Nearly 60 percent of Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, along with 40 percent of Britons and a quarter of Americans. Only 10 percent of E.U. citizens have been inoculated, according to the latest information published by Our World in Data.
While changes to the proposed rules could still take place before the law is finalized, officials said it was unlikely they would be substantive. They are expected to be put into force swiftly.
E.U. officials said the rules would allow a degree of discretion, meaning they won’t result in a blanket ban on exports, and the officials still expected many exports to continue.
Youmy Han, the spokeswoman for Canada’s minister of international trade, Mary Ng, said the proposed changes “are concerning” but added that E.U. officials had offered assurances that vaccine shipments to Canada would be unaffected.
“We will continue to work with the E.U. and its member states, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to ensure that our essential health and medical supply chains remain open and resilient,” Ms. Han said.
Under President Donald J. Trump, the federal government did little to gauge the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s education system. President Biden promised to change that, and on Wednesday, his Department of Education released the first federal survey of how American public schools have operated amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The results paint a picture of a school system that remained severely disrupted as the pandemic neared its first anniversary.
It found that in January of this year, three-quarters of school buildings were open at least partially for in-person learning in the fourth and eighth grades, the two grade levels examined by the survey. Nevertheless, 43 percent of fourth graders and 48 percent of eighth graders were learning fully remotely. Only 28 percent of eighth graders and 38 percent of fourth graders were attending full-time, in-person school; the rest were on hybrid schedules, receiving a mixture of in-person and virtual instruction.
Racial disparities were stark. The majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American fourth graders were learning fully remotely, compared to only a quarter of white fourth graders. About half the white fourth graders were in full-time, traditional school.
Children with disabilities were only slightly more likely to be learning in-person than others, despite schools reporting that they had prioritized this population for classroom time.
“It’s sobering,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group that has spent the past year gathering its own, widely cited data on how school districts are functioning. “The data point us to the strong likelihood that the effects from lack of live instruction will add up to significant challenges for kids.”
In line with previous research, the survey found that urban schools, which serve large numbers of nonwhite students, were less likely to offer full-time, in-person schedules. But there is also evidence that significant numbers of nonwhite parents are opting for remote learning even when other options are available, in part because they are more concerned about the health risks of returning their children to school buildings.
The quality of remote learning varied widely, according to the federal survey. More than 1 in 10 students were offered less than two hours per day of live instruction from teachers. In some states, such as Oklahoma and Idaho, only a small percentage of remote learners received more than two hours of live teaching daily.
The survey is based on a representative sample of schools, and will be updated monthly throughout the academic year. Future surveys will look at additional grade levels.
Health officials in Hong Kong and Macau said on Wednesday that they have suspended vaccinations from BioNTech shots after the company’s Chinese distributor uncovered packaging defects.
The Hong Kong government said BioNTech, the German partner of Pfizer, and Fosun Pharma, the Chinese distributor, had not found any reason to believe that patients’ safety was at risk. But a written notice from Fosun to regulators on Wednesday prompted them to suspend the vaccines “for the sake of caution.”
“This is a preventive measure to continuously ensure the safety of vaccinations,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
The announcement could lead to a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines in Hong Kong, which ordered 7.5 million doses of the BioNTech shot. It is one of two vaccines available in the city. The other is produced by Sinovac, a Beijing-based vaccine maker.
The Hong Kong government said it planned to hold an emergency meeting with Fosun later this afternoon. When asked for comment, Fosun referred to the government statement.
A Hong Kong subsidiary of Fosun informed the Hong Kong government on Wednesday of the packaging defects relating to how the vials were closed on one batch of doses, with the number 210102, the government said.
The suicide of Kent Taylor, the founder and chief executive of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, has drawn attention to a possible link between Covid-19 and tinnitus, the medical term for a constant ringing in the ears.
Mr. Taylor had a variety of symptoms following his illness, including severe tinnitus, his family said in a statement, adding that his suffering had become “unbearable.”
Whether tinnitus is linked to Covid-19 — and if so, how often it occurs — is an unanswered question. Neither the World Health Organization nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes tinnitus as a symptom, although auditory problems are common in other viral infections.
But tinnitus is on the list of symptoms of “long Covid” published by the National Health Service in Britain, along with fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and more. And a few recent case reports and studies have hinted at a potential link.
A study published on Monday in the Journal of International Audiology that looked at nearly 60 case reports and studies found that 15 percent of adults with Covid-19 reported symptoms of tinnitus. The authors believe that the respondents were describing either a new condition or a worsening one, though they are following up with the 60 or so researchers to be certain about how the surveys were worded.
“In the 24 hours since we published, I’ve received about 100 emails,” said Kevin Munro, a professor of audiology at the University of Manchester and a co-author of the study. “Almost of all of them were people saying, ‘I was so happy to read about this, because my doctor thought I was crazy when I mentioned tinnitus and now I know I’m not the only one.’”
There is also some evidence that Covid-19 can aggravate symptoms among people who already had tinnitus. A study published late last year in the journal Frontiers in Public Health surveyed 3,100 people with tinnitus and found that 40 percent of the 237 respondents who had contracted Covid-19 reported that their symptoms were “significantly exacerbated” following the infection.
“There are a lot of viruses that have an impact on the ears, including measles, mumps and rubella,” said Dr. Eldre Beukes, the audiologist at Anglia Ruskin University in England who led the study. “It could also be the case that medication taken to combat Covid is making tinnitus worse. And there is a well-known link between tinnitus and stress.”
In today’s edition of The Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt writes:
Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, noticed something last year about the Covid-19 television coverage that he was watching on CNN and PBS. It almost always seemed negative, regardless of what was he seeing in the data or hearing from scientists he knew.
When Covid cases were rising in the U.S., the news coverage emphasized the increase. When cases were falling, the coverage instead focused on those places where cases were rising. And when vaccine research began showing positive results, the coverage downplayed it, as far as Sacerdote could tell.
But he was not sure whether his perception was correct. To check, he began working with two other researchers, building a database of Covid coverage from every major network, CNN, Fox News, Politico, The New York Times and hundreds of other sources, in the U.S. and overseas. The researchers then analyzed it with a social-science technique that classifies language as positive, neutral or negative.
The results showed that Sacerdote’s instinct had been right — and not just because the pandemic has been mostly a grim story.
The U.S. media is an outlier
The coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media. “The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity,” Molly Cook, a co-author of the study, told me.
About 87 percent of Covid coverage in national U.S. media last year was negative. The share was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media and 64 percent in scientific journals.
Notably, the coverage was negative in both U.S. media outlets with liberal audiences (like MSNBC) and those with conservative audiences (like Fox News).
Sacerdote is careful to emphasize that he does not think journalists usually report falsehoods. The issue is which facts they emphasize. Still, the new study — which the National Bureau of Economic Research has published as a working paper, titled, “Why is all Covid-19 news bad news?” — calls for some self-reflection from those of us in the media.
If we’re constantly telling a negative story, we are not giving our audience the most accurate portrait of reality. We are shading it. We are doing a good job telling you why Covid cases are rising in some places and how the vaccines are imperfect — but not such a good job explaining why cases are falling elsewhere or how the vaccines save lives. Perhaps most important, we are not being clear about which Covid developments are truly alarming.
As Ranjan Sehgal, another co-author, told me, “The media is painting a picture that is a little bit different from what the scientists are saying.”
Why the bad-news bias?
The researchers say they are not sure what explains their findings, but they do have a leading contender: The U.S. media is giving the audience what it wants.
When the researchers examined which stories were the most read or the most shared on Facebook, they tended to be the most negative stories. To put it another way, the stories that people choose to read skew even more negative than the stories that media organizations choose to publish. “Human beings, particularly consumers of major media, like negativity in their stories,” Sacerdote said. “We think the major media are responding to consumer demand.”
That idea is consistent with the patterns in the data, Sacerdote added: It makes sense that national publications have better instincts about reaching a large audience than, say, science journals. And overseas, some of the most influential English-language media organizations — like the BBC — have long received government funding, potentially making them less focused on consumer demand.
All of that sounds plausible to me, but I don’t think it is the full explanation. I have worked in media for nearly three decades, and I think you might be surprised by how little time journalists spend talking about audience size. We care about it, obviously, but most journalists I know care much more about other factors, like doing work that has an impact.
In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it.
Sometimes, though, our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story. I am grateful to Sacerdote, Cook and Sehgal for doing to us journalists what we normally do to others — holding up a mirror to our work and giving us a chance to do better.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, who helped found several health-related advocacy groups and later tackled the opioid epidemic and e-cigarettes as surgeon general during the Obama administration, was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday to reprise that role for President Biden.
The vote, 57 to 43, was a much smoother ride for Dr. Murthy than the first time he was confirmed, in 2014, when Republicans cast him as a politically connected supporter of President Barack Obama who would use his position to push for stricter gun control. The fight dragged on for months, leaving the country without a top doctor for more than a year.
When President Donald J. Trump was elected, Dr. Murthy was asked to resign. He refused and was fired, his wife, Alice Chen, said at the time.
Dr. Murthy will return as surgeon general at a critical moment, as the president tries to steer the nation out of the worst public health crisis in a century while expanding access to health care for millions of Americans. During his confirmation hearing, he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he would make ending the coronavirus pandemic his highest priority.
Dr. Murthy, 43, helped found Doctors for Obama, a group that worked to elect Mr. Obama and now works to expand health care access for Americans. It now goes by Doctors for America.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he helped found two nonprofits, one focusing on H.I.V./AIDS education in the United States and India, and the other to train women as community health workers in rural India.
A son of Indian immigrants and the first person of Indian descent to hold the surgeon general’s post, Dr. Murthy, 43, was born in England and grew up mostly in Miami, watching his parents in their own medical practice. He invoked them during his confirmation hearing.
“I have tried,” Dr. Murthy said, “to live by the lessons they embodied: that we have an obligation to help each other whenever we can, to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and to give back to this country that made their lives and my life and the lives of my children possible.”
From the moment that Japan pitched to host the 2020 Olympic Games, its organizers have framed it as a symbol of recovery.
Now, as the organizers press ahead with plans to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, the event itself threatens to become a trial.
A series of challenges have besieged the Games. Even as the organizers decided last week to bar international spectators, epidemiologists warn that the Olympics could become a superspreader event. Thousands of athletes will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries while much of the Japanese public remains unvaccinated.
In polls, close to 80 percent say the Games should be postponed again or canceled outright.
The financial hazards are also significant — the Olympic budget has swollen to a record $15.4 billion, increasing nearly $3 billion in the past year alone and adding to longstanding doubts about whether Olympic Games pay off for host nations. Without foreign spectators, there is now little upside for hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions.
In the telling of the Olympic organizers, staging the Games this summer is something close to a moral imperative. The president of the Tokyo organizing committee, Seiko Hashimoto, recently cited the “significant challenges” facing the world and the responsibility of the Olympics “to build a legacy for the future society.”
But money, national pride and political obduracy are also at play.
Then there is the matter of China. The Beijing Winter Olympics are less than a year away, and Tokyo wants bragging rights for hosting the first post-pandemic Games. If the Olympics fell through in Japan but were staged in China, that could give the Beijing government more fuel to assert that its authoritarian system is superior.
Whatever the outcome, they could have profound ramifications for the entire Olympic movement, which has relied for decades upon a promise of inspiration and civic pride to support enormous expenditures and increasingly onerous demands on host cities.