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Coronavirus Today: What the virus’ origins can teach us

Good evening. I’m Russ Mitchell, and it’s Thursday, June 10. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Nobody’s yet sure exactly where the novel coronavirus came from. There are three leading theories: 1) Like most such viruses, it jumped from an animal to a human. 2) It accidentally leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the pandemic first broke out. 3) A combination of the two.

The question of the origin of the coronavirus officially known as SARS-CoV-2 has, like too many important issues today, been infected by politics and conspiracy theories. (Former President Trump didn’t help clarify matters when, early on, he blamed China itself for the pandemic.)

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Times medical writer Emily Baumgaertner takes on the subject in a piece that’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the science: “Why the Chinese lab leak theory matters.”

The key takeaway: Pinpointing the origin of the virus is key to understanding how to predict, prevent and contain future pandemics.

“The question isn’t who is to blame — it’s whether you want another virus to kill millions more people in the next decade,” Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told Baumgaertner. “When your house catches on fire, it shouldn’t be controversial to look closely at how it happened.”

Past outbreaks of deadly viruses have been instructive. Early cases of SARS were linked to palm civets and led to a crackdown on restaurants serving the animals’ meat. Understanding MERS transmission spurred efforts to develop a vaccine for camels. The threat of bird flu for humans has changed poultry farming practices worldwide.

No specific animal has been tied to today’s coronavirus as an original source, but researchers are trying hard to trace it. After all, if the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first began spreading from a market or an animal, as most scientists suggest, it would affect future public health strategy.

Evidence of an accidental lab leak would have far different implications for public health and lab safety, probably intensifying demands for strict international standards for types of research and the conditions under which it should be done.

Efforts to investigate the possibility of a leak have been stymied, largely by the Chinese government, which has silenced critics within its borders, hidden vital scientific data and leveraged vaccine diplomacy in an attempt to control the narrative. President Biden has instructed U.S. intelligence services to look into the lab leak theory, but without more openness from Beijing, it’s hard to see how anything but speculative conclusions about that possibility can be drawn.

Even some scientists who favor the natural origins theory argue for a fuller investigation because they believe it would set a precedent for better scrutinizing dozens of other labs around the world. Forgoing an inquiry would send a dangerous signal that accountability in a future pandemic can’t be guaranteed.

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By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:23 p.m. Thursday:

Cases: 7-day average 986, 14-day change -41.1%. Deaths: 7-day average 29, 14-day change -39.6%. 55.9% at least partly vaxxed.

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

Across California

We all know California reopens Tuesday. With so many stories about it over so little time, it may be hard to keep straight what that means, maskwise. So The Times’ Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money turned out an FAQ to help. Here’s a summary based on official pronouncements:

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— If you’ve been fully vaxxed for two weeks or more, you can go mask-free in nearly all settings, with a few exceptions including public transportation, nursing homes and indoors at K-12 schools.

— The unvaccinated must mask up in public indoor settings.

— Business owners are stuck with coming up with a system for dealing with unvaccinated customers.

— Anyone who wants to wear a mask anywhere is allowed to.

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That much is clear. But workplace rules on masks have remained a work in progress.

On Wednesday, members of a California workplace safety board suggested they will move to let fully vaccinated employees stop wearing masks while on the job, aligning proposed health rules with federal and state recommendations.

It was less than a week ago that the board recommended a stricter mask rule that would have meant that workers in a room could take off their masks only if everyone inside was fully vaccinated and had no COVID-19 symptoms. The board voted unanimously Wednesday night to rescind that proposal.

Details on the new proposal remain scant, but it will be presented at a meeting next Thursday.

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Official permission to go maskless, however, does not address whether you should wear a mask. For example, people with suppressed immune systems and parents of children too young to be vaccinated might want to keep wearing masks, even if they’ve been vaccinated themselves.

“There are some people for whom mask-wearing is still lifesaving,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week.

Officials are warning the public against heaping scorn or dirty looks on those who decide to wear masks, as Lin and Money report in another Times story.

Although incidences of vaccinated people contracting COVID-19 are rare, public health experts like L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis have said they’ll keep wearing masks in crowded indoor places when they can’t be sure everyone around them has been vaccinated.

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Up north, though, UC San Francisco infectious-disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi said she plans to go maskless wherever it’s allowed, to make a statement: “I feel like I’m modeling good behavior to show the effectiveness of the vaccines,” she said. San Francisco has one of the lowest new case rates in the state.

UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford said his mask choices will depend on his location. In San Francisco, he’ll go maskless in most places. But “if you’re up in Redding, or someplace like that, and there’s not a lot of adherence to mask-wearing [among the unvaccinated] … I might be more inclined” to wear a mask, he said.

Then again, he added, he’s 69 years old. “So I’m gonna take a little extra precaution.”

Of course, the more quickly people get vaccinated, the more quickly the pandemic ends. Methods of convincing holdouts have included pressure from family physicians, mobile van distribution and lottery-style giveaways where Gov. Gavin Newsom picks balls out of a basket and hands out money to fully vaccinated winners, tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

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And then there’s the incentive that is basically free pot. One Bay Area dispensary is encouraging vaccinations while creating marketing buzz around its retail marijuana business by offering select get-you-high products for a penny to anyone with a valid COVID-19 vaccination card.

Ben Grambergu, the marketing director for 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center, said Thursday that more than 400 people over the last week have shown up for little hits that amount to “almost a pound in grams” of cannabis.

California reopening map: 24 counties in yellow (including San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo), 31 orange and 3 red
A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

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Around the nation and the world

Not everyone in the U.S. wants to be vaccinated, and hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson are set to expire soon. To try to avoid a total waste, the Biden administration is encouraging states to hold on to the doses while waiting for data that might show they will last longer than their expiration dates indicate.

Until that time, officials are warning vaccine administrators not to use any vaccine past its date of expiration.

The J&J single-dose vaccine lasts three months under refrigeration, and two years if it’s frozen. Data from an ongoing stability study of expiring June doses should be available in about a month, according to two state officials who were on a call Tuesday with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where the topic was discussed.

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One reason so many doses are going unused: Demand for the vaccine plunged after the FDA recommended pausing its use in April after reports of rare but serious blood clots. (The pause was lifted 10 days later.) That’s according to Jim Mangia, chief executive of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. He said his network of 26 L.A.-area clinics has more than 14,000 doses on hand. County officials, he said, won’t take them back.

The federal government has delivered 21.4 million J&J doses to the states, but just over half — 11.2 million — have been administered.

While doses stack up, some federal officials are concerned about the highly infectious Delta variant first identified in India and now circulating in the U.S. and dozens of other countries. That variant may be associated with increased disease severity.

The good news is that current vaccines have been shown to be effective against it. And the latest data on the variant underscore the importance of getting a second dose for vaccines that require it: One dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine yields just 33% effectiveness against symptomatic disease, but two shots are 88% effective.

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In the United Kingdom, transmission of the coronavirus is peaking among people ages 12 to 20. But some experts in California believe the U.S. is in better shape to prevent the variant’s spread among teens than is the U.K., where most people under 25 still aren’t eligible for a vaccine.

Dramatically slowing infection rates have convinced many countries it’s safe to open up for summer tourism. Prospective travelers to Europe will discover a patchwork of border control systems among the European Union’s 27 nations. A country-by-country guide from the Associated Press offers tips to those thinking about traveling to France, Italy, Greece, Spain and the U.K.

The gist: France reopened this week to vaccinated Americans. So did Spain. Italy has been open to Americans, provided they self-isolate for 10 days after landing on so-called COVID-tested flights. The U.K. has a similar requirement. And as for the EU as a whole, lawmakers are working on a joint digital travel certificate system.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: When can kids younger than 12 get vaccinated?

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“That’s the million-dollar question,” UCLA pediatrician Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice told my colleague Sonja Sharp, who explored the subject this week in 8 to 3, her excellent newsletter about education, kids and parenting.

Wouldn’t it be great if younger kids could all get vaccinated against COVID-19 this summer in time for the return to school? Alas, that appears unlikely.

Clinical trials are underway on vaccines from both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in an effort to show the shots are safe and effective for children under 12, but the results won’t be ready at least until late this summer. If all goes well, the vaccines would need to be approved or authorized for use in kids that age before they could be administered.

Think Thanksgiving. That’s the target Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested recently on CNN. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that some kids under 12 can be vaccinated by then, and that other kids will be eligible by year end.

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“We are now doing studies that are ongoing as we’re speaking, studies that are looking at what we call age de-escalation, children from 12 to 9 and then 9 to 6 and then 6 to 2 and then 6 months to 2 years,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN. Exactly what age groups he hopes will be approved by Thanksgiving he did not say.

Much could depend on the approval process, De St. Maurice said. In her opinion, the most significant threat to hopes for early fall vaccinations for young kids may be the simultaneous push for full approval from the FDA. “The FDA is also focusing on licensing these vaccines for other age groups,” which could divert resources from an emergency use authorization in younger children. (If you’re wondering how full approval differs from an EUA, we answered that question last week.)

Vaccines were developed first for adults, in part because children are less likely to develop serious cases of COVID-19. Shots were authorized for use in children 16 and older in April and for children ages 12 to 15 in May.

As for younger kids, a few thousand of them won’t have to wait — including some in L.A. and Northern California. Kaiser Permanente sites there have launched trials to test first the Moderna vaccine and now the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in children 5 to 11, part of a nationwide effort involving about 4,600 children.

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If all goes well, the vaccine could become available for young children as early as fall, according to Dr. Nicola Klein, director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center, which is conducting the trial. “So it may be around the start of school,” Klein said, adding that the timing is a best-case scenario and ultimately is still “up in the air.”

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Wondering if your question’s already been answered? Check out our archive here.

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Need more vaccine help? Talk to your healthcare provider. Call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255. And consult our county-by-county guides to getting vaccinated.

Practice social distancing using these tips, and wear a mask or two.

Watch for symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Here’s what to look for and when.

Need to get tested? Here’s where you can in L.A. County and around California.

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