A version of this story appeared in the May 12 edition of CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction newsletter. Sign up here to receive the need-to-know headlines every weekday.

CNN  — 

A Covid-19 variant first identified in India has now spread to 44 countries worldwide, threatening to undermine global progress in containing the pandemic. The B.1.617 variant appears to be fueling India’s crippling second wave, which killed a record 4,205 people on Wednesday alone. But in February, it seemed like India had gotten a handle on the pandemic, with daily cases falling nearly 90% from the peak of its first wave. So how did this variant get so out of control?

The Indian strain was classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday, meaning that it may show, among other indicators, to be more transmissible, cause more severe disease, fail to respond to treatment, evade immune response or fail to be diagnosed by standard tests.

There are questions about what role the variant has played in India’s resurgence of cases and deaths, the WHO said Wednesday, explaining that several other contributing factors – such as religious and political mass gatherings – have likely also contributed.

The WHO assessment will come as no surprise to critics of Prime Minister Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have come under increasing fire after holding multiple election rallies drawing thousands and giving the go-ahead for the largest religious pilgrimage on Earth last month – even as experts warned it could cause a deadly surge. The WHO said that the “exact contributions of each of these factors on increased transmission in India are not well understood.” Meanwhile, India’s surge has devastated major cities, with hospitals running out of oxygen and medicine. And the nightmare seems inescapable, with devastating scenes now plaguing the entire nation. Across rural states and far-flung villages, doctors and clinics are in short supply – leaving India’s poorest to fight for their lives without access to care.

While India makes up 95% of cases and 93% of deaths in Southeast Asia, and 50% of global cases and 30% of global deaths, concerning trends have also been noted in neighboring countries.

The B.1.617 variant has also spread far beyond India’s borders. The United Kingdom – which is slated to make its “single biggest step” towards normality by dropping most pandemic restrictions next Monday – has reported the largest number of cases of the strain outside of India, the WHO said. When asked about the variant, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Monday that “we don’t know if this is going to cause significant problems in the autumn.” Meanwhile, in the United States – where B.1.617 is also present – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still classifying it as a “variant of interest,” but noted that this classification could escalate or deescalate based on scientific evidence.

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.

Q: Will the Covid vaccine protect me against the B.1.617 variant?

A: So far, it is too early to tell. However, a batch of new studies published last week show how well coronavirus vaccines work against other worrying variants – with one indicating that a booster dose can help them work even better. And at least one of the studies also demonstrated that being fully vaccinated matters. Read more here.

Send your questions here. Are you a health care worker fighting Covid-19? Message us on WhatsApp about the challenges you’re facing: +1 347-322-0415.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT TODAY

Russia and China find common ground in vaccine diplomacy

China and Russia’s international vaccine goals are increasingly aligned, as they assist developing countries neglected by their traditional Western partners who have been accused of hoarding shots, Ben Westcott writes.

Chinese companies have made agreements over the past month to manufacture more than 260 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has been approved for use in more than 60 countries – many of which are developing nations. As hundreds of millions of doses of the Russian shot are distributed, they will carry the label: “Made in China.”

But there is also a darker side to this cooperation, with recent Russian disinformation efforts attempting to undermine confidence in US and UK vaccines. China has done the same, with state-run media hyping up reports of deaths from US and European-made vaccines. Bobo Lo, an expert on China-Russia relations and former diplomat said while it was hard to know if the closeness would remain in the long term, for now both China and Russia’s leaders are being brought together by the growing Western opposition to their governments.

US officials are rallying teens to get vaccinated before variants spread

As children in the United States as young as 12 are now eligible to get vaccinated, health experts are shifting their messaging to encourage this new demographic to take up the shot. That’s in part because the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision on Monday to expand authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to adolescents from 12-15 comes as public health officials are urging Americans to get inoculated before variants resistant to vaccinations spread, and potentially cause another surge. Already, more than 72% of coronavirus genetic sequences in the United States are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom – one that is known to be more transmissible than its predecessor, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.

To get adolescents and their parents onboard, primary care providers, pediatricians and family medicine physicians talking with parents and the kids will be critical, said Dr. Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “Here we have to speak not only to the patient, the adolescent, but also their parents and guardians to make the case simultaneously to both.”

How does “cautious hugging” work?

Hurrah! Some of us can hug each other again. In the United Kingdom, residents will get the green light to resume “cautious hugging” next week. And in America, that time has already come for many. But what does this milestone mean? A cautious hug is one that’s outdoors, without face-to-face contact, and that doesn’t last very long, two US physicians told CNN. Anyone who’s unvaccinated should use caution when hugging someone else, and should wear a mask while doing it, they said.

Kids who aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet (and are short enough) can hug their vaccinated loved ones around the waist, though they should skip the slobbery kisses. Keeping their face away from the face of the person they’re hugging is key here, said Vanderbilt University infectious diseases professor Dr. William Schaffner. While unvaccinated teens probably won’t want to crouch down to hug anyone, they should keep a mask on while they hug and tilt their face away from the person they’re hugging, Schaffner added.

Fully vaccinated people who’ve missed physical touch are in luck: They can hug each other with abandon, the experts said. “Fully vaccinated people can hug one another without restriction, including indoors, without masks,” Dr. Leana Wen, visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health said. Wen added that goes for all vaccinated people, too. And if you’re not ready to hug anyone yet, that’s OK, too. Cuddling up to someone you love was unthinkable even a few months ago, and it’s a dramatic change from the way we’ve been living since March 2020. Wen advises to take post-vaccine life at your own speed.

ON OUR RADAR

Climbers walk along the Khumbu glacier near Mount Everest base camp in Nepal's Solukhumbu district on May 2, 2021.
  • Climbers on Mount Everest have been asked to return oxygen canisters on the mountain as Nepal’s Covid-19 cases spike. Some hospitals in Kathmandu have been forced to turn patients away, with doctors raising the alarm on a “crisis of oxygen.”
  • After Shahnawaz Shaikh’s best friend’s sister, who was six months pregnant, died from Covid last May at the gates of an overwhelmed hospital in Mumbai, he sold his car to give free oxygen to coronavirus patients. Now he runs 24/7 operation with a team of 20 volunteers to help others in need.
  • Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former Prime Minister is back in the hospital with a Covid-related illness, just weeks after being discharged. The 84-year-old president of the Forza Italia party contracted the virus in September last year.
  • Pope Francis held his first public audience in six months on Wednesday, telling a crowd of around 300 people gathered outside the Vatican that he was happy to see them “face to face.” The pope did not wear a mask and stopped to talk, shake hands and sign autographs with the crowd, who all wore masks and had their temperatures taken.
  • The island of Capri is hoping to lure tourists back with the promise that it’s “Covid-free.” The Italian paradise has stepped up its vaccination campaign ahead of the summer season – inoculating 80% of its population so far – in hopes that it can bring holidaymakers back after the tourist sector marked a 70% drop in turnover last year.

TODAY’S TOP TIP

Here’s how you can avoid Covid-19 inside your house of worship

Many churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship have continued to offer virtual or outdoor services. But if you do attend in-person services inside, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people still need to follow public health guidance.

So, it’s best to mask up, stay at least six feet away from people who don’t live in your household, and avoid poorly ventilated spaces. Try to sit near an open window or door, or choose a service in which people tend to sing less. You can also ask your house of worship if it’s regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces like pews, pens or offering plates – and of course, you can BYOS (bring your own sanitizer) too.

Houses of worship can also use stationary collection boxes for offerings instead of passing a basket, or accept contributions online. If food is offered at or after services, choose pre-packaged foods instead of buffet or potluck meals, if possible.