UN Health Agency Sees Pandemic on Worrisome Trajectory

The coronavirus pandemic is showing no sign of letting up and is even accelerating in many parts of the world.

People attend the burial of a relative who died from complications related to Covid-19 at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

(CN) — The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to worsen with deaths and infections increasing in many parts of the world, the World Health Organization warned on Friday.

“The trajectory of this pandemic around the world is going in the wrong direction,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, during a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters on Friday.

It is most grim in Brazil, which has been in the grip of an out-of-control outbreak for months exacerbated by the anti-lockdown policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. This week, Brazil’s daily death toll reached new staggering counts. On Tuesday and Thursday, Brazil reported more than 4,000 new deaths each day, setting records. Only the United States reported more single-day deaths in its darkest days of the pandemic when it reported nearly 4,500 daily death tolls three times in January.

In Asia, the pandemic is accelerating too, with India the hardest hit. India is reporting a dramatic rise in infections, reaching a new record of more than 131,000 cases on Thursday. The outbreak in India is alarming: On March 11, it was reporting only about 19,000 new cases a day and that number has quickly climbed since then. Deaths too are rising quickly with India recording 802 on Thursday, a quadrupling in about three weeks.

A surge in cases is occurring in several other countries, with Turkey, Iran and Argentina in the midst of new waves. South Korea and Japan, two Asian nations that have contained the virus, are fighting new outbreaks too. South Korea is imposing restrictions and closing bars and nightclubs in the capital Seoul and nearby areas. Still, its outbreak is tiny compared to what many countries are dealing with as it reports about 300 new infections a day.

The situation remains dire in Europe with France, Germany, Poland and Italy each reporting thousands of new infections a day. Across the European Union, each day brings with it about 150,000 new confirmed infections and about 3,000 deaths.

More contagious strains spreading around the globe, vaccine shortages, pandemic fatigue and relaxing of measures against the virus are all contributing to the spread.

The WHO said cases have risen for a sixth consecutive week with more than 4 million new infections reported globally. Around the world, the death toll stands at more than 3 million with more than 71,000 new deaths reported in the past week.

A woman wearing a mask walks past a notice about the shortage of Covid-19 vaccine doses in Mumbai, India, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

With the pandemic worsening again, the urgency to ramp up vaccine production is ever more pressing. Faced with a shortage of vaccines, the WHO said governments and citizens must continue fighting the pandemic with all the measures that have become so familiar: Frequent hand washing, mask wearing, quarantines, case detection, physical distancing and restrictions.

Bruce Alyward, a WHO senior adviser, said such measures are vital in a place like Brazil where vaccines are in limited supply. He said the WHO doesn’t have enough vaccines at hand to ship emergency quantities to Brazil.

“There simply is not the vaccine right now,” Alyward said. “What you’re dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak and that requires population-level action in the rapid identification, isolation, quarantine. You have to approach this at that scale to slow this thing down.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, pleaded with richer nations that have stockpiled or secured more than enough vaccine vials for their populations to share their doses with the rest of the world. He did not mention any individual countries, but only the United States and other rich countries have either stockpiled or secured such high numbers of doses.

The WHO is coordinating a global initiative to distribute vaccines to poorer nations, but that effort has fallen short of its goals. Tedros said it had hoped to distribute 100 million doses by the end of March but had delivered only about 38 million.

“There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” he said. “Most countries do not have anywhere near enough vaccines to cover all health workers or all at-risk groups, never mind the rest of their populations.”

He said richer countries account for 87% of the 700 million doses administered globally so far, resulting in about 1 in 4 people in high-income countries having received a shot while only 1 in 500 people in low-income countries have been vaccinated.

The WHO’s vaccine troubles got more complicated this week when regulators in the EU and the United Kingdom said there was a possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and very rare blood clots. Tedros said the WHO’s expert advisory panel agreed with that assessment. Despite the warning about the vaccine, the WHO and other health agencies say the benefits of taking the vaccine far outweigh the risks. The AstraZeneca vaccine is a centerpiece to the WHO’s vaccine plans because it is affordable and does not need to be shipped at subzero temperatures.

The WHO is also looking at using Russian and Chinese vaccines, but it hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to approve them for use.

There are concerns the Chinese vaccine Sinovac may not be as effective as touted, as evidenced by a high number of infections in Chile despite a high rate of vaccination with more than 35% of the population receiving a shot. Chile has relied on the Sinovac vaccine.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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