(CN) — With the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic nearing 760,000, the number of new infections around the world has leveled off to about 260,000 a day, but the World Health Organization is warning about the potential for new waves.
Little more than six months since the WHO declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency at the end of January, the world has been upended by a pandemic that’s left economies in tatters, people terrified and angry, and world politics in chaos as the United States and China intensify their global confrontation. The virus emerged out of China in December but it has wreaked the most havoc in the U.S.
Leaders around the globe meanwhile have found themselves under fire for their responses to the pandemic, with protests now engulfing Belarus and Lebanon among the latest examples.
The International Monetary Fund estimates the world economy is suffering about $375 billion in losses a month due to the pandemic and that the global economy will suffer more than $12 trillion in losses between 2020 and 2021. To offset the pandemic’s effects, the world’s richest nations have injected more than $10 trillion in stimulus funding.
The world appears to have entered a period of respite in the pandemic with the number of new infections stabilizing since the end of July when the WHO reported a peak of nearly 300,000 new daily infections globally. For the past two weeks, the number of new infections has stopped rising and by Friday on average about 260,000 new cases were being reported each day.
But the United Nations health agency warned against complacency and said new waves of the disease are likely unless countries continue to suppress the virus until vaccines are made available.
“We’ve seen a plateauing of numbers,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, at a Thursday news briefing in Geneva. “But this is like the cascades of a waterfall: You can go down one level and you think you are in calm water and you go over the next level and you’re in a waterfall again.”
He added: “Calm waters do not mean the storm is over. We may just be in the eye of the storm and we don’t know it. So, absolute vigilance now.”
A century ago during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, more people died during a second wave of the flu in the autumn and winter of 1918 than when the virus first appeared in the spring.
The leveling off of new infections can be attributed to a slowing of the virus’ spread in the Americas, the epicenter of the pandemic and by far the worst-hit part of the world. The virus has been linked to 390,000 deaths in the Americas, more than half of the global total, according to WHO figures.
Each day, more than 100,000 new infections are being reported in the Americas and the region’s death tolls this week ranged between more than 2,000 fatalities to more than 4,000. Official death counts are considered unreliable and likely undercounts. Grim reports of cadavers being left on streets and being buried in bags are common in Latin America. The virus is crippling health systems in poorer Latin American countries and devastating economies driven by commodities and exports, sectors that depend on a strong world economy.
The U.S., Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Colombia make up the bulk of the cases and deaths in the Americas. The U.S. has the world’s highest toll with more than 170,000 deaths linked to the virus and Brazil the second highest with more than 105,000 deaths.
Of these five American nations, however, only Peru and Colombia are reporting a rise in cases while the U.S., Brazil and Mexico appear to be on a downward trend. Deaths though remain stubbornly high in all three countries with the U.S. and Brazil each reporting in recent days tolls well above 1,000, and Mexico reporting on average more than 700 deaths a day. Peru has recorded more than 25,640 deaths and Colombia more than 14,140.
The WHO urged nations to do everything they can to suppress the virus.
“What we have to keep in mind is a very small proportion of the world’s population have been exposed to this virus and have developed an infection and have developed an immunologic memory,” Ryan said. “So this virus has a long way to burn if we allow it to.”
Globally more than 21 million infections have been detected among the world’s population of 7.8 billion, though the number of infections is believed to be far higher because the vast majority of people show few to no symptoms when they contract the virus. The WHO estimates the fatality rate from the virus at about 0.6%, and it says studies show that in places hit by outbreaks only about 10% of people appear to have been infected. The virus is especially dangerous for older people with health problems.
Outside of the Americas, India has become a major hot spot. Its cases are rising and topping 60,000 each day while its death toll continues to mount with more than 900 new deaths a day. It has recorded more than 48,170 deaths.
Europe, meanwhile, is fighting a resurgence of the virus across the continent. Tightening of restrictions, new quarantine requirements for travelers, and bans on events and gatherings are being put into effect throughout the European Union as Spain, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Belgium, among other countries, attempt to contain outbreaks.
In Europe, the increase in cases is linked to summer vacations, large gatherings of young people in music clubs and bars and a relaxation of measures such as hand washing, physical distancing and mask wearing.
“Those countries that have made progress, please maintain that progress,” Ryan said. “You will lose that progress if you relent.”
Ryan said many countries, such as those in Europe, face big choices as they reopen schools and the coming of colder months when viruses typically circulate more easily.
“That’s going to be the struggle over the coming months: making good choices,” he said.
The WHO said the main hope to end the pandemic are vaccines.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said nine vaccines are in advanced stages of clinical trials. There are more than 170 vaccines being tested around the world.
He urged countries to spend much more on efforts the WHO is leading to make vaccines and medicines available worldwide at affordable prices. He said the WHO’s initiatives need about $31.2 million in immediate funds.
“It’s the best economic stimulus the world can invest” in, he said. “Before spending another $10 trillion on the consequences of the next wave, we estimate that the world will need to spend at least $100 billion on new tools, especially any new vaccines that are developed.”
As researchers rush to find safe and effective vaccines, many countries are preordering large amounts of vaccines in the hope of getting a jump on vaccinating their populations. There are concerns that richer nations will hoard vaccine supplies to the detriment of poorer countries.
The WHO said such a scenario will hurt the entire world because of the way the globalized economy is interwoven. It said each nation would be better off if the world coordinates efforts and resources to ensure the distribution of vaccines can end the pandemic sooner.
“When a successful vaccine is found, there will be greater demand than there is supply,” Tedros said. “Excess demand and competition for supplies is already creating vaccine nationalism and risk of price gouging.”
He added that “this is the kind of market failure that only global solidarity, public sector investment and engagement can solve.”
“We live in a globalized economy and countries are dependent on each other for goods and services, transportation and supply,” he said. “If we don’t get rid of the virus everywhere, we can’t rebuild economies anywhere.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.