In recent days, Indonesia has reported nearly twice as many coronavirus cases as the United States. Malaysia’s per capita caseload is roughly on par with those of Brazil and Iran. And the latest Covid surges in Japan and South Korea have prompted harsh new restrictions on movement there, effective Monday.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, the Delta variant is driving new outbreaks in places where transmission was once kept relatively low, but where the pace of vaccination has been too slow to contain the latest outbreaks. One result is that everyday activities are again being restricted, just as they were in the anxious, early days of the pandemic — even as the West edges back to normalcy.
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is a case in point. Its government once hoped that its archipelagic geography and youthful population would spare it a debilitating outbreak. But only about 13 percent of its 270 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and the rise of Delta is pushing its health system to the brink and forcing some patients to hunt for oxygen.
On July 3, the government closed mosques, schools, shopping malls and sports facilities on two of Indonesia’s major islands for two weeks. But the daily average of new cases — more than 33,000 as of Sunday — has continued to climb. Officials said on Friday that they would extend the same emergency rules to other islands.
Intensive care wards in and around the capital, Jakarta, have been operating at full capacity, and doctors who received the vaccine made by the Chinese company Sinovac have been falling ill or dying. The government has said it will administer a third dose, of the Moderna vaccine, to about 1.5 million health workers starting this week.
In other Southeast Asian countries, too, the percentages of populations that have gotten even one shot are in the single or low double digits. And as variant-driven infections proliferate, some are seeing their worst outbreaks yet.
In Myanmar, where health workers have been striking to protest the military’s February coup, cases are sharply rising and schools have been closed until July 23. People in several Malaysian cities are chafing under strict lockdowns as the country reports the region’s highest per capita caseload. Vietnam is restricting movement in its two major cities and scrambling to import vaccines. And a terminal at Thailand’s largest international airport is being converted into a field hospital.
Richer countries in the region have more resources to throw at the virus. But they, too, are vulnerable because they have made little progress in their vaccination drives. In Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, less than one person in three has had a shot, according to a New York Times tracker.
New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, reported its largest daily increase in cases this year on Sunday, as well as Australia’s first coronavirus-related death this year, a woman in her 90s. Sydney, the state capital, has already been under a stay-at-home lockdown, and the authorities have warned that it could be extended past July 17, when it is set to expire.
South Korea reported 1,378 new cases on Saturday, its third consecutive daily record. The government plans to raise restrictions to the highest level in Seoul, the capital, and some neighboring regions as of Monday. Schools will be closed, bars and nightclubs will be shut, and no more than two people will be allowed to meet in public after 6 p.m.
And in Japan, Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency will take effect on Monday, less than two weeks before the Summer Olympics begin there. Restaurants, department stores and other businesses will be asked to close early, and organizers of the Summer Games have said they will bar spectators from most events in Tokyo and its surrounding areas. A ceremony marking the Olympic torch’s arrival in the city late last week was held in a nearly empty park.
On Saturday, Fukushima Prefecture said that it would also ban spectators from Olympic events because of the surging caseload, reversing a position announced two days earlier by Olympic organizers.
Scientists have long been interested in creating portable devices that can quickly and painlessly screen a person for disease simply by taking a whiff of their breath. But delivering on this dream has proved to be a challenge. Different diseases may cause similar breath changes. Diet can affect the chemicals someone exhales, as can smoking and alcohol consumption, potentially complicating disease detection.
Still, scientists say, advances in sensor technology and machine learning, combined with new research and investment spurred by the pandemic, mean that the moment for disease-detecting breathalyzers may have finally arrived.
“I’ve been working in the area of breath research for almost 20 years now,” said Cristina Davis, an engineer at the University of California, Davis. “And during that time, we’ve seen it progress from a nascent stage to really being something that I think is close to being deployed.”
In May, when musicians from dozens of countries descended on Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for the Eurovision Song Contest, they had to pass a breath test before they were allowed onstage. The musicians were asked to exhale into a device the size of a water bottle called the SpiroNose, which analyzed the chemical compounds in their breath to detect signatures of a coronavirus infection. If the results came back negative, the performers were cleared to compete.
The SpiroNose, made by the Dutch company Breathomix, is just one of many breath-based coronavirus tests under development across the world. In May, Singapore’s health agency granted provisional authorization to two such tests, made by the domestic companies Breathonix and Silver Factory Technology. And researchers at Ohio State University say they have applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency authorization of their coronavirus breathalyzer.
“It’s clear now, I think, that you can detect this disease with a breath test,” said Paul Thomas, a chemist at Loughborough University in England. “This isn’t science fiction.”
Strict lockdowns in New Zealand last year appear to have contributed to a recent outbreak in children of respiratory syncytial virus, or R.S.V., a highly contagious, flulike illness whose symptoms include a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and fever.
Children in New Zealand were mostly stuck indoors amid lockdowns last autumn, which runs from March to May in the Southern Hemisphere. After the country reopened last winter, health officials say, few of them contracted seasonal viruses and infections, probably because they had been underexposed to germs.
In a typical year, New Zealand sees a peak of cases of respiratory infections from June to September. But in 2020, the country experienced “the complete absence of an annual winter influenza epidemic,” with a 99.9 percent reduction in flu cases and a 98 percent reduction in R.S.V., according to a study published in Nature in February.
This year, however, the same children have been more vulnerable than usual to those same ailments.
Since the start of winter five weeks ago, during which there have been no coronavirus restrictions, children’s wards in New Zealand have seen dozens of patients, many of them infants, battling the sometimes deadly disease, while some elementary schools have reported having as many as half their students absent because of respiratory illnesses.
The country has reported 969 cases of R.S.V. in five weeks, compared with an average of 1,743 cases over the entire 29-week winter season in the five years before the pandemic, according to New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research.
The recent surge has yet to reach a plateau, said Dr. Sue Huang, a virologist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research and the lead author of the Nature study.
“The exponential increase is very sharp,” she said in a statement. “The absence of R.S.V. last winter meant there is a young cohort of children from last year, plus a new cohort this year, who have not been exposed to the seasonal virus.”
Doctors around the world have warned of the risk of “immunity debt,” when a decline in the number of viral and bacterial infections during lockdowns is followed by more sickness once restrictions are lifted.
In a paper published in May in the journal Infectious Diseases Now, a team of French medical researchers suggested that less exposure to microbial agents could create a lack of “immune stimulation” for susceptible people, particularly in children. “The longer these periods of ‘viral or bacterial low-exposure’ are, the greater the likelihood of future epidemics,” they wrote.
New Zealand closed its borders early in the pandemic, unveiling stringent lockdown measures that were lifted last April and May and have allowed the country to all but eliminate coronavirus transmission. No community cases have been reported for more than four months.
In other developments around the world:
Spain is facing a further hit to its summer tourism season after Germany classified the entire country as a “risk area.” As of Sunday, travelers entering Germany from anywhere in Spain, including its Balearic and Canary archipelagoes, will have to provide a negative coronavirus test or proof of vaccination or recovery to avoid quarantine. The Italian government also warned on Saturday that it was considering greater restrictions on travelers from Spain as well as Portugal. Both countries have been grappling with a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, particularly among unvaccinated young people.