(CN) — Around the world the number of new deaths and infections from the novel coronavirus are declining, a positive sign that weeks of lockdowns and precautions are paying off, the World Health Organization said on Friday.
But the United Nations health agency said the fight against the deadly virus is far from over and it scolded richer nations for pushing ahead with plans to vaccinate not just those at most risk – health workers, the elderly and the sick – but their entire populations rather than share their vaccine stockpiles with poorer nations.
“Globally, the number of vaccinations has now overtaken the number of reported infections,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters.
“In one sense, that's good news and a remarkable achievement in such a short time frame,” he added. “But more than three quarters of those vaccinations are in just 10 countries that account for almost 60% of global GDP.”
He said nearly 130 nations where 2.5 billion people live have “yet to administer a single dose.”
“Some countries have already vaccinated large proportions of their population who are at lower risk of severe disease or death,” he said. “All countries have an obligation to protect their own people, but once countries with vaccines have vaccinated their own health workers and older people, the best way to protect the rest of their own population is to share vaccines so other countries can do the same.”
The WHO is leading a global vaccination program and hopes to distribute 2 billion vaccine doses around the world by the end of the year. On Thursday, it said it will begin shipping 90 million doses to African nations this month.
“The longer it takes to vaccinate those at risk everywhere, the more opportunity we give the virus to mutate and evade vaccines,” Tedros said. “In other words, unless we suppress the virus everywhere, we could end up back at square one.”
He also urged drug makers to work together by sharing data on vaccines to increase the global supply and make them easier to manufacture in poorer parts of the world. He applauded a recent announcement by French drugmaker Sanofi that it will help produce the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
For the past month, new confirmed infections globally have been steadily falling and the number of new deaths is beginning to drop too, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.
The number of reported new infections each day is consistently under a half million, a level similar to where the world was in October at the start of a second wave of the pandemic.
Still, the daily death toll remains very high, though it too is dropping. In the past week, 91,469 deaths were recorded globally, a decline of about 8,000 deaths from the previous week, which was the highest yet in the pandemic. About 2.3 million people have died worldwide.
“It's a good point to highlight the fact that we are seeing declines in incidence in a number of countries,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the pandemic.
She credited the slowdown to the range of measures nations have enacted to suppress the virus: mask wearing, physical distancing, bans on gatherings, frequent hand washing, rigorous testing and quarantines.
“The tried and true, tested interventions that we know work, that break chains of transmission, that prevent infections,” she said.
Tedros pointed to India as an example of a country getting a grip on the virus through basic public health measures. In the middle of September, India was reporting more than 8,000 new deaths each week and about 646,000 new weekly infections. By the end of January, he said India's weekly death toll was down to about 935.
“It was a constant decline,” Tedros said. “This shows us that if we can do the simple public health solutions, we can beat the virus. Now, with the vaccines added, we would even expect more and better outcome.”
There is growing optimism that vaccines are safe and will bring the pandemic to an end. In recent days, scientists have expressed growing confidence that new vaccines against Covid-19 also are effective against more contagious variants of the virus that have spread around the world.
In Israel, a nation that's leaped ahead in the race to vaccinate, there are signs its vaccination program is slowing the spread of the virus. So far, about 5.4 million jabs have been administered in Israel, meaning that about 61 out of every 100 people there have been vaccinated, the highest rate in the world, according to figures tracked by Our World In Data. It is recording about 6,700 new infections a day and about 50 deaths a day, both of which have fallen in the past month.
Despite the reasons for optimism, Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO's chief of emergencies, warned the pandemic is far from over.
“Are we turning the corner? The problems sometimes with corners is you don't see what's around that corner,” Ryan said. “This virus still has a huge amount of energy.”
He likened this moment to a lull in a massive flood.
“Just because the floodwaters have dropped an inch or two, it doesn't mean the flood's going to go away because it's still raining upstream,” he said.
“For the last number of weeks, compliance and buy-in and participation from communities and lockdowns and stay-at-home orders and wearing masks and avoiding crowded places – that's what's pushed the virus down,” Ryan added. “The virus isn't going away by itself and it won't. It will go away when we put it away.”
Just as those public health measures have saved lives, he said vaccines will do the same and “double and triple the payoff in the lives we can save.”
But he warned against complacency and recalled how many people – including experts and political leaders – let down their guard last summer because they felt the virus was in check only to discover that the second wave of the pandemic was far worse.
“We have to follow through and we have to continue to do everything to keep pushing that number down,” he said. “Remember what happened the last time someone said: 'We're turning the corner?'”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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