(CN) — Globally, the number of new coronavirus infections has fallen for the fifth week in a row and the death toll is also subsiding, but the World Health Organization on Thursday said people should not let down their guard as warmer weather approaches in Europe and North America, the hardest hit regions.
Last week, the WHO said infections fell by 16% with about 2.7 million new cases detected around the world, the vast majority of those in the Americas and Europe. Deaths have declined for about three weeks, though the number of fatalities remains extremely high with about 81,000 deaths last week, according to the latest WHO report on the pandemic. The WHO's reports are based on data that is a few days old.
The most current figures, tracked by Johns Hopkins University, give even more room for hope. Between the week of Feb. 11 and Wednesday, 71,095 deaths were reported globally, a marked decrease from the end of January when the pandemic saw its darkest days in terms of deaths when about 99,500 fatalities in a single week were recorded.
“The important trend is that almost all countries, and certainly all regions, we're seeing the downward trend and that needs to continue and needs to continue to be supported,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, during a Thursday news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters.
The agency credits the slowing of the virus to lockdowns, restrictions and people's behavior but also to better testing and medical treatment. With the decrease in infections, restrictions are being eased in many places and as spring draws nearer there is the danger that people will begin mixing again without taking precautions, the WHO warned.
“As spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, people will want to celebrate more,” Ryan said. “I would just caution that we have to be very careful. We're certainly not out of the woods yet.”
He urged nations to “continue to drive the case numbers down” while also vaccinating more people against the virus.
The production and distribution of vaccines is now the top priority – and reason for concern – at the United Nations health agency and for the entire world. Huge disparities in vaccination rates are emerging with some countries speeding ahead while many others lag far behind.
Israel, by far the world leader in vaccinating its citizens, has vaccinated nearly 80 out of every 100 people. But vaccinations are only beginning for Palestinians in occupied territories, a disturbing example of the inequities in vaccine distribution.
The vast majority of the world has either not started vaccinating or only just begun. Even the United States, after administering more than 56 million doses, the most anywhere, has only managed to inoculate about 17 out of every 100 citizens, according to figures tracked by Our World in Data, a research group affiliated with the University of Oxford.
In the European Union, only about five out of every 100 people have received a shot. The EU is in a massive row over the slow pace of inoculation, which was due in part to a more cautious approach by the EU in approving vaccines and a decision to purchase vaccines as an entire bloc rather than allow individual states to compete for the drugs.
The United Kingdom, which is now outside the EU, has made its vaccination program a much-needed success story after years of turmoil caused by Brexit were compounded by a disastrous handling of the pandemic. About 24 out of every 100 Brits has now received a shot. The U.K. is reining in the virus and now reporting about 12,000 new cases a day, a huge relief from early January when more than 60,000 new infections were reported each day. Daily deaths, though, remain tragically high. On Wednesday, it reported 738 more deaths and its toll stands at more than 119,380 deaths, the highest in Western Europe.
Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom, the WHO director-general, has been pleading with world leaders to avoid so-called “vaccine nationalism” and help his agency achieve a goal of vaccinating 20% of the most vulnerable people in each country around the world by the end of the year.
At the news briefing, he praised French President Emmanuel Macron for urging European nations to donate 5% of their vaccine supplies to African nations. Macron made his comments in an interview published by the Financial Times on Thursday.
A major concern is that richer nations are buying up the bulk of the available vaccine supply, which will not just leave poorer nations unable to vaccinate their populations but also create the risk of allowing the virus to explode in new regions of the world and mutate in ways that could render current vaccines ineffective.
“As there is the understandable rush to receive the vaccines – and inoculation of all various populations – we are more than a little bit concerned that there is, or is to be, hoarding and price gouging as well as undo preference in some quarters,” said Keith Rowley, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. He was invited to speak at the news briefing about the urgency to deliver vaccines to small nations like his Caribbean republic.
He said “we can all come out of this dreadful experience” only through a fair and compassionate plan for worldwide vaccine distribution. He said vaccines should be “for the benefit of all humankind and not just the privileged, well-heeled few.”
The danger posed by mutations in the virus are becoming abundantly clear. The most alarming mutation was discovered in South Africa, the African nation hit the hardest by the virus.
Kate O'Brien, the WHO head of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said clinical trials and laboratory studies show that the current crop of vaccines are less effective at neutralizing the strain found in South Africa, which is also more contagious. Infections linked to this strain – classified as 501Y.V2 or B.1.351 – have cropped up around the world, including in the United States and Europe. Still, she said vaccinated people remain far better protected than those who aren't inoculated.
“Our big message is that we should get on with vaccination as quickly as possible and at the same time do everything possible to reduce transmission because the more these viruses transmit, the more likely they are to have additional mutations occur and more likely to have issues that could emerge that relate to reduced impact of the vaccines,” she said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.