Global COVID-19 cases declined last week for the third week in a row, but cases are rising in some countries, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said today, urging nations to keep their guard up, especially with the threat of variant viruses.
Push for vaccine teamwork, vigilance
At a briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the drop in cases is encouraging, because it shows that the virus can be controlled, even with new variants circulating that are thought to be more transmissible.
“However, we have been here before,” he warned, referencing declines after earlier surges when some countries opened up too quickly, allowing people to let their guard down and COVID-19 levels to soar again.
Tedros urged governments to do more to encourage people to follow COVID-19 measures, such as taking steps to make quarantine easier or making workplaces safer.
At today’s briefing, the WHO and representatives from the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) launched a public awareness campaign called Act Together to promote equitable global access to vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics through the WHO-led ACT Accelerator. The campaign will feature television and in-stadium messaging, featuring star soccer players and head coaches.
Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, said at today’s briefing, “Fairness and team spirit are key values of the sport. The same key values are needed for today’s great challenge,” he said. “If we act together as a team, we can play our part to fight coronavirus.”
In another vaccine development, Bruce Aylward, MD, MPH, senior advisor to Tedros, said that, over the weekend, 190 countries that are participating in the WHO-led COVAX program are getting the first look at their vaccine allocations through letters that were sent out yesterday. The COVAX program is designed to support vaccine development and provide equitable access to them.
He said the letter details a range of quantity of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine that countries are likely to receive, with the hope of starting in February and extending through the first half of the year. Aylward said final volumes will depend on how smoothly production goes during vaccine manufacturing, and other WHO officials said other factors guide allotments, such as regulatory developments, bilateral agreements with manufacturers, and the percentages of the population that each country intends to vaccinate.
The WHO’s Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said yesterday that 36 countries and territories in the Americas that are participating in COVAX received their letters and that an estimated 35.3 million doses will be arriving in the Americas for the first stage. PAHO said the WHO is still reviewing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine for emergency use, with a decision expected within the next few days.
Most countries in the Americas will receive vaccines through COVAX with their own financing, but 10 will get vaccine at no cost because of their economic situation or population size.
Variant circulation has countries on edge
Two countries that are on lockdown and have made progress with immunization—Israel and the United Kingdom—are signaling that they will keep precautions in place owing to the threat from the new SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Israel yesterday extended its national lockdown, even though it has vaccinated 24% of its population, which has won praise, according to Reuters. The country had projected that cases would start falling in the middle of January, but cases are still surging. Officials said serious cases are occurring in unvaccinated people. and other factors are contributing to continued high case levels, including more transmissible virus variants and people defying the lockdown.
Yesterday, despite restrictions, two large funerals for two prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis took place in Jerusalem, which triggered criticism from the government.
Today, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said though COVID-19 cases have flattened, infections are still at high levels, meaning no early easing of restrictions, according to Reuters. UK health officials said 11 people in different regions of England have tested positive for the B1351 variant that was first detected in South Africa. None of the cases are linked to people who traveled.
Meanwhile, other countries—including Australia and Vietnam—that have successfully kept cases low are on edge due to the appearance of new cases. Australia yesterday reported an infection in a guard who works at a quarantine hotel in Perth, according to a Western Australia government statement. The report didn’t say the man’s infection involves a variant virus, but it notes that there is a person with the B117 variant strain in quarantine.
In Vietnam, which recently reported clusters of cases after a long hiatus, including some in Hanoi, reported 14 new cases yesterday according to Reuters. Officials in Hanoi said yesterday that all schools will be closed.
In other global headlines:
- In Asia, South Korea extended its COVID-19 measures until the end of the Lunar New Year, and Chinese officials arrested more than 80 people in a fake vaccine ring.
- South Africa, the hardest-hit country in Africa, received its first COVID-19 vaccine doses today, which are prioritized for health workers, according to Reuters. The first shipment included 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine produced by India’s Serum Institute.
- The global totals today climbed to 103,298,719 cases and 2,234,565 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.