The biggest concern now is the spread of new strains of the virus that scientists say are more contagious, though not more lethal.
(CN) — The death toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic surpassed 2 million on Friday and the World Health Organization warned the global health crisis may get even worse as people weary of restrictions let down their guard and more contagious strains of the virus spread around the globe.
“We’re in a situation with an escalating virus right now,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a WHO senior adviser, during a briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters on Friday. “The virus is taking off. Things can get worse, numbers can go up and we’re seeing that.”
On Friday, the toll from the pandemic surpassed 2 million, according to a tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University. More than 13,000 people are dying each day but the actual death toll is believed to be much higher because many deaths are likely not being counted as caused by Covid-19. For instance, Russia recently acknowledged its death toll is three times higher than its official count. By Friday, Russia had reported more than 64,490 Covid-19 deaths.
More than 93 million confirmed cases have been found around the globe and in the past week the WHO said just under 5 million new cases were reported. But the pandemic’s most painful toll has been in the Americas and Europe, which together account for about 80% of the world’s infections and deaths.
Around the globe, there are reports of new outbreaks in places like China and Japan, overstressed hospitals, the imposition of heavier restrictions, the discovery of new highly contagious strains and difficulties in getting vaccines delivered and into the arms of people.
Vaccines are touted as the best weapon against the virus and ending the pandemic, but optimism about how fast they can be manufactured and even trusted may be waning. Covid-19 vaccines have been developed in record speed, though problems are emerging.
On Friday, for example, Norwegian health officials issued a troubling warning that 23 elderly and frail people died after being injected with the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a product that has vaulted to the lead in the vaccine race. The Norwegian Medicines Agency said elderly and ill people may die from “common adverse reactions” to the vaccine such as a fever and nausea. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is based on a new technology that attacks viruses through RNA, a molecule found in human cells.
For now, though, the biggest concern is the spread of new strains of the virus that scientists say are more contagious, though not more lethal. A new strain found in Brazil is the latest development to cause concern and prompt new travel restrictions against Brazil and its South American neighbors.
After the United States, Brazil has recorded the highest number of deaths in the world. By Friday, it had recorded more than 207,000 deaths. But as the country enjoys its summer, the virus has begun to accelerate again. It’s so bad that parts of Brazil are reporting that about 50% of people tested for the virus were positive.
Particularly grim reports are coming out of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state in the tropical jungle of the Amazon River basin.
“The situation in Amazonas has deteriorated significantly over the last couple of weeks,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies.
With more than 2,000 people hospitalized by the virus, he said Manaus’ intensive care units are full and more than 400 other Covid-19 patients are waiting to be admitted.
Each day, the city is reporting more than 4,000 new infections and 50 deaths, he said. There is a shortage of basic needs, such as oxygen and protective gear for health workers, Ryan said. In addition, he said many laboratory technicians and health workers in neighborhoods tracing down infected people have themselves contracted the virus. As a consequence, laboratories have a backlog of more than 7,000 coronavirus samples to test.
“This is a situation where your whole system begins to implode,” he said.
“This is not a situation that other places didn’t face,” Ryan added. “What I’ve described there could have been described from New York or northern Italy or any number of places on this planet over the last year.”
But don’t blame new strains of the virus for the new spike in cases in Brazil and elsewhere, he said. In many places, he said new variants can only account for a small proportion of new infections.
Instead, Ryan put the blame on people enjoying themselves during the holiday period by holding parties and mixing with others.
“It’s too easy to lay the blame on the variant and say it’s the virus that did it. Well, unfortunately, it’s also what we didn’t do that did it,” he said.
Still, new more contagious strains do appear to be behind the spike in some nations, most notably the United Kingdom. Scientists there identified a new strain shortly before Christmas and since then the new strain has been linked to a dramatic increase in infections in and around London.
Dr. Didier Houssin, the chairman of the WHO’s emergency committee, said the world needs to step up efforts to identify and understand new strains. It is normal for viruses to mutate and seek new ways to infect a host species.
So far, WHO scientists have expressed relief that the new strains have not made the virus more deadly. They also believe vaccines in use now are effective against new strains.
“We are in a race between the virus, which is going to continue trying to mutate in order to spread more easily, and humanity, which has to try to stop this spreading,” Houssin said.
Courthouse New reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.