UN Health Agency Warns Tough Months Lie Ahead in Pandemic

While vaccinations are beginning, it will take months for a sizable number of people around the world to get inoculated and most will remain at risk from the virus for much of 2021.

A man on a bike crosses a nearly deserted market square in Hildeheim, Germany, on Friday. ( Julian Stratenschulte/dpa via AP)

(CN) — With the number of Covid-19 deaths and infections continuing to climb and mark new grim records, the World Health Organization on Friday warned that difficult months lie ahead despite the distribution of vaccines.

“Many, many countries are facing up a very serious mountain again at a very difficult time with the prospects for increased transmission,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO, during a Friday news briefing at the United Nations agency’s Switzerland headquarters.

It’s been nearly a year since China first reported a cluster of strange pneumonia cases in the industrial city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, which of course turned out to be caused by the novel coronavirus and marked the beginning of the pandemic

A team of WHO international experts is expected to travel to Wuhan in January to investigate how the virus first entered humans. One theory is that it started in a wild meat market in Wuhan. Chinese authorities are now positing that imported frozen meat sold at the market was the potential source.  

A year later, nearly 1.7 million deaths have been linked to the virus and more than 75 million people have been confirmed infected with it.

With the Northern Hemisphere entering winter, there are deep concerns that the worst months yet are ahead. This past week set a new record for deaths with 80,147 people dying in the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The number of newly infected people also hit a new record this week with more than 4.3 million new confirmed cases registered globally, according to WHO data.

Vaccines are beginning to get rolled out and the hope is they will end the pandemic. On Friday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence got jabbed on live television. The U.S. has approved two vaccines and the European Union is expected to green light vaccines before Christmas and begin vaccinations shortly thereafter. China and Russia have their own vaccines and have begun vaccinations.

But it will take months for a sizable number of people around the world to get vaccinated and at least for much of next year, the vast majority of people will remain at risk from the virus.

The work to vaccinate people around the world got a boost Friday after the WHO said it had gained access to nearly 2 billion doses of several promising vaccine candidates.

“Vaccine is on the way, it is a source of great hope and we should celebrate that vaccines are coming,” Ryan said. “But the next three to six months are going to be tough.”

He said there are “worrying increases” in the Americas and that countries like Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. “never really exited its first surge” of cases because they were unable to get the virus under control. More than 620,000 people have died from the virus in these three countries, which is about 40% of global deaths in the pandemic.

“It’s a very, very high and intense period there and it really does come back to being able to implement all of the measures that are needed,” Ryan said.

He said the spread of the virus will likely intensify in places that haven’t gotten it under control. But he added that the virus is also taking off in countries that had kept it suppressed.

“You’re seeing that in a number of countries,” he said. “Even in East Asian countries that have done well up until now, they are really having difficulties in containing certain, particularly urban, outbreaks.”

That’s the case in South Korea, which has been held up as a success story. After an initial outbreak in February and March, the virus largely disappeared. But since November South Korea has reported an increasing number of infections. In recent days, it’s reported daily totals of more than 1,000 new cases and the government has begun imposing restrictions and hospitals are filling up in Seoul. Still, South Korea has only reported 645 deaths caused by Covid-19.

Germany, one of Europe’s rare success stories in containing the virus, is another example of a country where the virus is puncturing previous confidence. In the past week, Germany has reported among the highest death tolls and caseloads of patients in Europe. In the past week, it reported 3,932 deaths, bringing its total toll to 25,776. While that’s a huge toll, it’s far less than Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Spain. Italy, Europe’s worst-hit nation, has recorded nearly 68,000 deaths, including 674 new ones on Friday.

“So past success is no guarantee of future success,” Ryan said. “Past failure is no guarantee of future failure. It is really what you do now, what everybody does now.”

He said countries and individuals must endure the hardships that come with fighting the virus, such as obeying restrictions on gatherings and taking precautions against infection.

“There is no magic to this, there are no unicorns here,” he said. “It is just a very simple commitment to just doing the very simple and direct things that need to be done and continuing to do that.”

He acknowledged that it’s extremely hard for people and governments to keep up a fight that has completely overturned the normal functioning of society and people’s lives. But he blamed shortcomings at many levels for making the pandemic even worse.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “We’re sorting out the sciencey bits, but we’re really not doing well at sorting out the social bits, the leadership bits and the coordination and the support we need for our communities to be able to contain this virus.”


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

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