Vaccines effective vs variants despite diminished antibodies; kids may be as contagious as adults

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Vaccines protect against variants despite diminished antibodies

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and the two-dose vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech appear to protect against worrisome coronavirus variants despite diminished levels of antibodies that can neutralize the newer versions of the virus, two studies in the journal Nature suggest. The authors of both studies said other immune responses may be compensating. In one study, published on Wednesday, researchers experimented with blood from people who had received the J&J vaccine two months earlier. Compared to their levels of neutralizing antibodies against the virus that was circulating early in the pandemic, levels of neutralizing antibodies against variants first identified in the UK, South Africa, Brazil and California were about three-fold lower. However, the researchers observed other “robust” immune activity and cells whose responses against the variants were undiminished. In clinical trials, the researchers noted, the J&J vaccine protected against symptomatic COVID-19 in South Africa and in Brazil, where most cases were caused by the variants. Its effectiveness in these regions raises the possibility that these other immune responses may be contributing to protection, coauthor Dr. Dan Barouch of Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said in a statement. In a separate study using blood from recipients of the Pfizer/BioNTech shots, levels of antibodies that could neutralize concerning variants first identified in India and Nigeria were lower compared to an earlier version of the virus, researchers reported on Thursday. Still, they reported “robust neutralization” of all tested variants. Neutralizing antibodies, the researchers said, do not reflect all potentially protective vaccine responses.

Children with COVID-19 may be as contagious as adults

In a community-based study of COVID-19 patients who were not hospitalized, U.S. researchers found that children and adults with symptoms had similar viral loads, which suggests children can be just as contagious as grownups. “There has been a lot of debate around school openings and about whether children could transmit the virus and we thought this study could help answer some of these questions,” said Dr. Helen Chu of the University of Washington, who coauthored a report published on Friday in JAMA Pediatrics. Her team looked at 123 children and 432 adults with COVID-19 and found that nearly all of the adults had symptoms, compared to about two-thirds of the children. “Overall, people with symptoms had higher virus levels than people without symptoms,” Chu said. “However, when you looked within these groups – those with symptoms or those without – viral load was the same whether you were a child or an adult.” She noted that swab tests were only done once, so researchers cannot be sure they took place when patients’ viral loads were highest. But overall, she said, children in the community with SARS-CoV-2 infection can have virus levels similar to adults and can transmit it to others.

Oral booster vaccine shows promise in animal tests

An experimental “booster” vaccine against COVID-19 that is taken by mouth has yielded promising early results in studies in rats, Israeli researchers said. The oral vaccine, MigVax-101, targets multiple sites on the coronavirus. Along with the spike protein on the surface of the virus, which is the target of currently available vaccines, the oral vaccine also targets two sites on the virus shell, which encapsulates its genetic material. In laboratory experiments, rats that had received two doses of vaccines that targeted the spike protein were given the oral booster. “These rats developed a much higher level of antibodies for neutralizing the disease than did control group rats that received a placebo or a third injection of the (original) vaccine,” said David Zigdon of MIGAL Galilee Research Institute Ltd, who coauthored a report posted on Wednesday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. If it is proven safe for humans, an oral vaccine might trigger strong immune responses in the mucosal surfaces of the mouth and upper respiratory tract, which would in turn help block viral entry, the researchers speculated. An oral vaccine could be particularly useful in developing countries because it would avoid the need for distribution of needles and could be self-administered.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid and Christine Soares; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Pfizer to test COVID-19 vaccine in larger group of children below 12

By Michael Erman and Ankur Banerjee

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc said on Tuesday it will begin testing its COVID-19 vaccine in a larger group of children under age 12 after selecting a lower dose of the shot in an earlier stage of the trial.

The study will enroll up to 4,500 children at more than 90 clinical sites in the United States, Finland, Poland and Spain, the company said.

Based on safety, tolerability and the immune response generated by 144 children in a phase I study of the two-dose shot, Pfizer said it will test a dose of 10 micrograms in children between 5 and 11 years of age, and 3 micrograms for the age group of 6 months to 5.

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company expects data from 5- to 11-year-olds in September and would likely ask regulators for emergency use authorization later that month. Data for children 2 to 5 years old could arrive soon after that, he said.

Pfizer expects to have data from the 6-month to 2-year-old age group sometime in October or November.

The vaccine – made by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SA – has been authorized for use in children as young as 12 in Europe, the United States and Canada. They receive the same dose as adults: 30 micrograms.

Nearly 7 million teens have received at least one dose of the vaccine in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Inoculating children and young people is considered a critical step toward reaching “herd immunity” and taming the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, scientists in the United States and elsewhere are studying the possibility of a link between heart inflammation and mRNA vaccines, particularly in young men. Both Pfizer and Moderna Inc’s vaccines are mRNA shots.

Israel’s Health Ministry said last week it had found the small number of myocarditis cases observed mainly in young men who received the Pfizer vaccine there were probably linked to their vaccination. The cases were generally mild and did not last long.

Pfizer has said it is aware of the Israeli observations of myocarditis and that no causal link to its vaccine has been established.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru and Michael Erman in New York; Editing by Arun Koyyur, Will Dunham and Mark Heinrich)

Nepal worries future coronavirus wave will hit children hard

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Nepal asked its hospitals on Friday to reserve beds for children for fear another surge in coronavirus infections will hit them hard, something officials in neighboring India are also preparing for.

The move came as the government approved for emergency use the COVID-19 vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech of China.

Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s government has been criticized by experts for its handling of the ongoing second wave in Nepal, which has led to an acute shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines.

“Hospitals and medical institutions must set aside at least 20% of beds for children, who are likely to suffer the most in the potential third and fourth waves of coronavirus,” the Ministry of Health and Population said in a statement.

“Hospitals must also ensure the availability of enough oxygen.”

Daily infections in the Himalayan nation are hovering around 5,000 after hitting a peak of more than 9,000 in early May. Nepal had reported fewer than 100 daily cases in March. It has reported 581,560 infections in total and 7,731 deaths.

Donors have rushed aid including oxygen, protective gear, drugs and face masks to the country, which is also struggling to secure vaccines after neighboring India stopped exports to meet its local demand.

Santosh K.C., a spokesman for the Department of Drug Administration, said “conditional permission for the emergency use” had been given for the coronavirus vaccine (Corona Vac) made by Sinovac Biotech of China, the fifth shot to be approved by Nepal.

Earlier it had approved two Indian-made vaccines – AstraZeneca’s and COVAXIN – China’s Shinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V for emergency use in the Himalayan nation.

Nepal has provided at least 3.1 million vaccinations to its people so far.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Exodus to jungles, villages as Myanmar troops retake town

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents of a hill town in northwest Myanmar were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys on Monday after fleeing an assault by state troops, witnesses said, as the army advanced into the town after days battling local militias.

Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, has seen some of the most intense fighting since a Feb. 1 coup that has led to the emergence of ragtag local armies that are stifling the junta’s bid to consolidate power.

Martial law was declared in Mindat on Thursday before the army launched its assault, using artillery and helicopters against a newly formed Chinland Defense Force, a militia armed mainly with hunting rifles, which said it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.

Several residents reached by Reuters said food was in short supply and estimated as many as 5,000 to 8,000 people had fled the town, with roads blocked and the presence of troops in the streets preventing their return.

“Almost everyone left the city,” said a volunteer fighter who said she was in a jungle. “Most of them are in hiding.”

A representative of the local people’s administrative group of Mindat said he was among some 200 people, including women and children, who had trekked across rocky roads and hills carrying blankets, rice and cooking pots.

He said the group was attacked with heavy weapons when troops spotted smoke from their cooking fires.

“We have to move from one place to another. We cannot settle in a place in the jungle,” he told Reuters by phone.

“Some men were arrested as they went into town to get more food for us. We cannot get into town currently. We are going to starve in few days.”

The Chinland Defense Forces in a statement on Monday said it had killed five government troops in Hakha, another town in Chin State.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF in a tweet urged security forces to ensure safety of children in Mindat, the latest international call for restraint after human rights groups, the United States and Britain condemned the use of war weapons against civilians.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced more sanctions against businesses and individuals tied to the junta. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged more countries to follow suit.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the military battling armed and peaceful resistance on multiple fronts, adding to concerns about economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis from old conflicts reigniting in border regions.

The fighters in Chin State say they are part of the People’s Defense Forces of the shadow government, which has called on the international community for help.

In an effort to coordinate the anti-junta forces, the shadow government on Monday issued a list of instructions to all the civilian armies, which it said must operate under its command and control.

Aid groups in direct contact with residents of Mindat made urgent calls on social media on Monday for donations or food, clothing and medicine.

Salai, 24, who has been organizing an emergency response, said she had spoken to people hiding in a valley and on farmland who had fled the advance of soldiers.

“They looted people’s property. They burned down people’s houses. It is really upsetting,” said Salai.

“Some in the town were injured by gunshots, including a young girl. She cannot get medical treatment.”

A military spokesman did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said security forces returned fire after coming under attack from insurgents in Mindat, who fled, and that government troops had been attacked elsewhere in Chin State.

So far, 790 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military disputes that figure. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

The military says it intervened after its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were ignored.

An international monitoring group on Monday said the results of that election “were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar”.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

WHO urges rich countries to donate shots instead of vaccinating children

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization urged rich countries on Friday to reconsider plans to vaccinate children and instead donate COVID-19 shots to the COVAX scheme for poorer countries.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said the second year of the pandemic was set to be more deadly than the first, with India a huge concern.

“I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to #COVAX,” he told a virtual meeting in Geneva.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of the coronavirus through India’s vast countryside on Friday, as the country’s official tally of infections crossed 24 million and over 4,000 people died for the third straight day.

More than 160.71 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 3,477,379​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019.

(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Michael Shields and John Miller in Zurich; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Russia charges 19-year-old over school shooting

By Dmitry Madorsky

KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) -A 19-year-old man was charged on Wednesday with multiple counts of murder over a school shooting in Russia that left nine people dead, as state investigators said that he was diagnosed last year with a brain disease.

Ilnaz Galyaviev appeared in court dressed in black, accused of opening fire at School 175 in the city of Kazan in an attack that killed seven children and two adults and wounded many more.

He behaved calmly and confidently and told the court he had no serious illnesses. He did not give a plea.

A court ordered Galyaviev to be held in custody for two months pending trial. State investigators said he had fired at least 17 rounds and detonated an explosive device in the attack in the city 450 miles (725 km) east of Moscow.

The Investigative Committee, which handles probes into serious crimes, said that Galyaviev’s relatives had noticed him behaving aggressively and having a short temper this year.

In a statement, it said that he had repeatedly sought medical treatment for severe headaches and that he was also diagnosed with a brain disease last year.

The deadliest school shooting since 2018 when a student at a college in Russian-annexed Crimea killed 20 people has stunned the city of Kazan.

Mourners brought toys and flowers to the school in tribute from the early hours on Wednesday.

“(I came here) because this is such a disaster … It’s impossible to just remain indifferent,” a woman who gave her name only as Albina said after coming to pay her respects at School Number 175.

The head of Russia’s Muslim-majority region of Tatarstan, where Kazan is the main city, has called it a national tragedy and the Kremlin has called for tighter gun controls.

Russia has strict restrictions on civilian firearm ownership, but some categories of gun are available for purchase for hunting, self-defense or sport, once would-be owners have passed tests and met other requirements.

Around 100 people, some of them wearing face masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, gathered at a traditional Muslim funeral for Elvira Ignatieva, an English teacher who was among the victims.

“She was protecting her children … She was protecting (them) and didn’t hide away,” said Talgat Gumerov, a Kazan resident.

Twenty-three people were still in hospital on Wednesday, including 12 children with gunshot wounds, the TASS news agency reported. Five children were in a serious condition and one of them was critical, it said.

(Reporting by Dmitry Madorsky; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher)

Almost 5,000 children separated in Tigray conflict – aid group

By Ayenat Mersie

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has separated nearly 5,000 children from their parents, Save the Children said on Tuesday.

Many children now live in crowded conditions, often sleeping in rooms with dozens of unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, Save the Children said.

Fighting between the federal government and forces in the northern region broke out in November and is believed to have killed thousands and displaced more than a million people.

Save the Children’s account was borne out by one young girl, who told Reuters how she had come home to find both her parents gone.

Freweyni, a seven-year-old from the town of Mai Kadra, lost track of her parents and her siblings when ethnic killings began. Reuters is withholding her last name for privacy reasons.

“Our neighbors came and said ‘Run, people may kill you,'” she told Reuters in March at a school sheltering displaced families in the regional capital Mekelle.

Her father stayed with her sick grandmother but told her to run. When she returned home, neither her parents nor her grandmother were there; she hasn’t seen them since, she said.

Freweyni, now cared for by a neighbor, was one of 45 separated children sheltering in the Kasinet High School, where people cram into crowded classrooms or camp under trees.

Many said they ate only one meal a day because there’s not enough aid. The humanitarian response has been hampered by continued fighting in some areas, the United Nations says.

The government has said it has supplied 70% of the food aid sent so far and is racing to rebuild infrastructure.

Communications are still a challenge: phone lines in some areas have been down since the conflict began; even major towns such as Shire, home to tens of thousands of displaced families, can have their road and phone connections disrupted for weeks.

“Protection systems that would normally support separated children have been almost totally disrupted due to the conflict,” said Magdalena Rossman, protection advisor for Save the Children.

One 11-year-old girl and her little brother lost their family in fighting, but managed to reunite with their 23-year-old brother, Save the Children said. He had fled to Sudan but came back searching for them. Their parents are still alive but unable to reach the children.

“When the war started, everything went bad,” the 11-year-old said. “There was always the sound of guns and armed men.”

“I want to be with my parents again. I still feel afraid.”

(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Crush at Israeli religious festival kills 45

By Rami Amichay

MOUNT MERON, Israel (Reuters) -At least 45 people were crushed to death overnight on Friday at an overcrowded religious festival in Israel, with some asphyxiated or trampled victims going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

Witnesses said many of the dead were caught in a tightly packed passageway around 3 meters (yards) wide after crowds packed the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel in defiance of warnings to maintain social distancing against COVID-19.

Medics said there had been a stampede in the men’s section of the gender-segregated festival. Casualties included children.

Many of the dead had yet to be identified and police asked family members to provide pictures and personal information of those who attended the festival and were still missing to help with the process.

Videos posted on social media showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.

“There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers,” said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.

“We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz told Reuters.

An injured man lying on a hospital bed described to reporters how the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.

‘PEOPLE DIED IN FRONT OF MY EYES’

“A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes,” he said.

People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiraled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.

The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.

A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a COVID-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.

A pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while visiting the site, called it one of the “heaviest disasters” in Israel’s history and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not recur. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

The United States and European Union offered condolences.

Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.

With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them.

As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revelers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrim buses to move unhindered.

The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions. But lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination program that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Remdesivir appears safe for seriously ill children; patients may not pose highest risk to hospital staff

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Antiviral remdesivir appears safe for children

The antiviral drug remdesivir appears to be as safe and effective for use in children with COVID-19 as in adults, according to the largest study to date of children with severe COVID-19 who received the drug. Remdesivir, sold by Gilead Sciences Inc under the brand name Veklury, shortens time to recovery in adults with COVID-19. It is not yet approved for children under age 12. In March 2020, Gilead began accepting doctors’ requests for compassionate use of remdesivir in critically ill children with COVID-19. In the new study of 77 children in the United States, UK, Italy and Spain, “remdesivir was well tolerated, with a low incidence of serious adverse events,” related to the drug, researchers reported on Wednesday in Pediatrics. Within four weeks of starting treatment, 88% of the children had decreased need for oxygen support, 83% had recovered and 73% were discharged. Among those requiring mechanical ventilation, 90% were able to be taken off the ventilators. A randomized controlled trial is underway to confirm that the high level of recovery was due to the effects of remdesivir, the researchers said. An editorial published with the study said: “Although morbidity and mortality rates differ, children hospitalized with acute COVID-19 often have a similar disease course as adults. Children are also likely to have a similar response to remdesivir as adults.”

Patients may not pose highest COVID-19 risk for hospital staff

U.S. healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic who become sick with COVID-19 are more likely to have acquired the infection in the community than through patient care, new research suggests. At a major Wisconsin medical center, researchers investigated likely sources of infections by analyzing the gene sequences of the virus obtained on swab samples from 95 healthcare workers and their patients. Only 11% of participants’ infections could be traced to a coworker and only 4% to a patient, the researchers reported in Clinical Infectious Diseases. They said their observations align with recent studies evaluating healthcare-associated infections in the Netherlands and in the UK, and with another recent study that found the most important risk factor for COVID-19 was the rate of the disease in surrounding communities, not workplace factors. “It appears that healthcare personnel most commonly become infected with SARS-CoV-2 via community exposure,” the researchers conclude. “This emphasizes the ongoing importance of mask-wearing, physical distancing, robust testing programs, and rapid distribution of vaccines.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Biden tells migrants to stay put. Central Americans hear a different message

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TÉCNICA, GUATEMALA (Reuters) – Maritza Hernández arrived at this remote Guatemalan village exhausted, with two young kids in tow and more than a thousand miles left to travel. She was motivated by a simple – if not entirely accurate – story.

“I heard news they are letting children in,” said Hernández, explaining she planned to cross the U.S. border in Texas and seek asylum.

The number of immigrant families apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000 people. Hunger and poverty are spurring their flight. So is disinformation that has rocketed across social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. border is now wide open.

Reuters interviewed nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers, and examined hundreds of posts in closed Facebook groups where these “coyotes” advertise their services. The review revealed pervasive myths about immigration policy changes under U.S. President Joe Biden.

“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters.

The truth is much more complex.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to enforce a policy, implemented by former President Donald Trump one year ago, of returning most southern-border crossers to Mexico. About 70,000 people, or 72% of such migrants – mostly single adults – were rapidly deported in February alone, according to CBP data. Some of those people were likely repeat crossers as the recidivism rate has climbed in the past year, according to U.S. officials.

“Don’t come over,” Biden said in a March 16 interview with ABC News when asked to articulate his message to hopefuls. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Still, it’s true that more migrants – mainly children and families – have been allowed to enter the United States in the early days of his administration than in the final days of Trump’s. In February, more than half of the family members caught with children at the border were not expelled. Many have been released from CBP custody into the United States as they await asylum hearings.

Their success has supercharged migrant and smuggler communication channels, with many now urging travelers to head north before the door slams shut, said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.

“Smugglers can definitely exaggerate things and make up information, but they can’t completely sell what doesn’t exist,” Seele said.

Biden aide Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s southern border coordinator, said the administration is now more aggressively discouraging migration.

Since January, the State Department has placed more than 28,000 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages on 133 stations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and it has worked with Facebook and Instagram to create advertisements to dissuade migrants, according to the department and the White House.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Trump’s anti-immigration message was loud and clear. Yet on his watch in February 2019, U.S. border agents encountered more than 40,000 people traveling in family groups, about twice as many as the Biden administration saw last month, according to CBP figures.

SMUGGLER TRADE THRIVING

The business of moving migrants is booming in the hamlet of La Técnica, deep in a Guatemalan rainforest, where Hernández and her two children stopped to rest.

In early March, Reuters witnessed motorized canoes whisking hundreds of U.S.-bound migrants across the Usumacinta River to the area’s unguarded border with Mexico.

Carlos, a smuggler who gave only his first name, chatted by phone with a colleague in the Mayan language Q’eqchi’ about an impending arrival. This transportation crossroads is also an information hub where news – both true and fake – spreads rapidly.

“Supposedly the president is letting children in,” Carlos said of Biden.

Carlos had it partly right. Biden, in a shift from the previous administration, said he would not turn away “unaccompanied minors” – kids crossing the border without parents or legal guardians. These children can now enter the United States to pursue asylum claims, in accordance with U.S. law.

The new administration has done the same for some migrant families along a limited, 230-mile stretch of the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. That shift came in early February after Tamaulipas refused to continue allowing U.S. border officials to expel back into the state Central American families with children under the age of six. Biden has said his team is working to convince Mexico to take more of those families back.

Much of this nuance has been lost in Central America, a region desperate for an escape valve. Migrants are being driven by gang violence and poverty that has been exacerbated by job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation is particularly dire in Honduras, where hurricanes Eta and Iota last November destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Nearly a third of the country’s population is now beset by a worsening hunger crisis, according to a government report published in February.

Hernández, who hails from the Honduran coastal state of Colón, said the storms wiped out the family’s chickens and inundated the farm fields where her husband worked. In February, she defied her spouse and set off for Texas with her two children, encouraged by news of other families successfully crossing the border.

The U.S. government radio spots warn migrants against such a journey. In an ad currently broadcast in Honduras, a man named “Jorge” advises “Rosita” that she could be “assaulted, kidnapped, abandoned or infected with coronavirus” – and would likely be detained or deported if she reached the United States.

But other U.S.-based sources are fueling the myth of an open border. Texas-based citizen journalist Luis Rodriguez, who was born in Honduras, has posted several videos for his 400,000 Facebook followers encouraging migrant families to capitalize.

“How long will this last? Well, no one knows,” he said in a March 7 video.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

Some high-profile Republicans, too, are sending the message via prominent news outlets that crossing is easy. In a March 21 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said “the border right now is wide open.”

Cotton repeated the exaggeration when contacted by Reuters.

SOME LUCKY, OTHERS NOT

Back in La Técnica, migrant Enrique Gallean shouted a warning to families gathered on the dock as he stepped off one of the rare boats bearing migrants back into Guatemala.

“They’re not letting children in!” he said.

Clutching his 8-year-old son’s hand, the Honduran native told Reuters he had recently crossed the U.S. border near Roma, Texas, and surrendered himself to CBP in the hopes of being allowed to pursue asylum. Instead, Gallean said, they were rapidly expelled to Mexico.

It was much the same for Hector Ruiz. A resident of El Salvador, he and his wife and three young children passed through La Técnica in early March with high hopes. He said he paid $20,000 to smugglers to get his spouse and kids to the Texas border to claim asylum. Ruiz, who had a previous deportation order, didn’t intend to cross, but he accompanied his family much of the way to ensure their safety.

Just over a week later, Ruiz told Reuters his wife and children had been expelled to Mexico.

“We went because we heard the news that there were 100 days of free passage!” Ruiz exclaimed by telephone. “Now we’re screwed.”

Hernández and her two children were luckier. She said that on March 19 her family turned themselves in to CBP in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, only to be released two days later to start the journey to Maryland, where her mother resides.

“We’re free!” she told Reuters by phone.

The news organization could not determine why the three were admitted while other families were not. CBP said it could not comment on the case due to security and privacy reasons.

Hernández’s WhatsApp profile now features a photo of her, the children and their grandmother beaming with happiness following their reunion. That portrait of success travels with each message she sends to friends and family back in Honduras.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Marla Dickerson)