United Nations health officials are warning against complacency and say vaccines for now cannot be relied on to stop Covid-19.
(CN) — With the death toll from the pandemic nearing 2 million, Europe and the Americas are setting new grim records as ever more people fall ill and die from the novel coronavirus.
On Friday, London declared a state of emergency with Mayor Sadiq Khan warning that the capital’s hospitals faced being unable to cope with the wave of sick people. London and other parts of southeastern England are under siege from a mutated version of the virus that is up to 70% more contagious.
“The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically,” Khan said in a statement. “We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point.”
The pandemic’s official death toll stood at about 1.9 million on Friday and deaths are on pace to surpass 2 million by the middle of January as more than 11,000 people die on average each day.
Tuesday set a new daily record when 15,426 deaths were reported around the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The past week was one of the deadliest yet with 80,294 fatalities linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Also, the number of new infections is hitting all-time highs with more than 800,00 new confirmed cases reported on Wednesday. The past three weeks have seen more than 4 million new people infected each week.
“Over the past few days we have seen some of the highest numbers of deaths recorded at any point in the pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general, during a news briefing on Friday at the United Nations agency’s Geneva headquarters.
WHO officials said too many people let their guards down during the holiday period and met other people, giving new momentum to the spread of the infectious new disease.
“This is happening because over the previous weeks there has been a lack of compliance with what health authorities are advising in several countries,” Tedros said. “The virus has taken advantage of this and is spreading at alarming rates in some countries.”
The United States, the hardest-hit nation in the world, recorded its worst day yet on Thursday when 4,207 people died, bringing the U.S. death toll to more than 374,000. In Los Angeles County alone, a daily record of at least 309 people died in a 24-hour period.
In Europe, the United Kingdom is doing all it can to stop the spread of a new more contagious strain that has been blamed on a spike in cases in southeast England. The nation is in a lockdown and vaccinating thousands of people a day.
By Jan. 3, it had vaccinated about 1.3 million people, according to public data collected by Our World in Data, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Oxford. That’s by far the most among European nations. On Friday, the U.K. greenlit the use of a vaccine produced by Moderna. Previously, it approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines on an emergency basis.
The European Union has been slower than the U.K. in approving vaccines and it is now trying to speed up inoculations. On Friday, the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s drug regulator, allowed doctors to draw one more dose from each vial of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than the companies had advised.
Many doctors were already drawing six doses instead of five from each vial. Getting more out of each vial was already permitted in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere.
German Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz told reporters in Berlin that the change would come into effect immediately, boosting available doses of the vaccine by 20%, the Associated Press reported.
Germany is now the EU nation going through its most grim days. On Friday, it reported 1,188 new deaths, its highest daily death toll yet. In all, about 40,000 people in Germany have died.
Until October, Germany was an outlier in Europe and had managed to contain the virus through lockdowns and other measures. But along with its Central European neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic, it is now reporting among the highest rates of infection and daily death tolls in Europe.
The Czech Republic, a nation with about 10 million people, reported more than 17,000 new infections on Thursday and Wednesday. Since late October, it has reported more than a hundred deaths nearly every day, bringing its death toll to about 12,800.
Italy, meanwhile, continues to struggle. On Friday, it reported 620 new deaths and 17,533 new cases. Italian regions are under varying levels of lockdown and a national lockdown went into effect during the holidays. With about 77,900 deaths, Italy has the second highest death toll in Western Europe after the U.K.’s count of 79,833 deaths.
Russia has reported a death toll of about 61,000, but it acknowledged recently that the number of Covid-19 fatalities is three times that number. Russian doctors have classified deaths as caused by Covid-19 only when the virus is the clear cause of death, which is a stricter standard than used elsewhere in Europe. Russia is reporting more than 23,000 new infections a day and more than 500 daily deaths.
With more vaccines being administered around the world, though mostly in richer nations, there is growing hope that nations can bring the pandemic under control by summer. But WHO officials warned against complacency and said vaccines for now cannot be relied on for stopping the disease.
“This is a very dangerous time in the course of the pandemic and I do not want to see people become complacent as vaccines are starting to roll out,” Tedros said.
“The numbers of vaccines that have currently been distributed will have had zero impact on transmission dynamics at country level,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies. “They may be saving lives as we speak, and we’re very grateful for that, but they are not going to affect transmission dynamics for a very long time.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.