As global COVID cases rise, multiple viruses stress health systems

Caring for girl in hospital bed
Caring for girl in hospital bed

Chinnapong / iStock

Global COVID-19 cases showed a small rise last week, with infection increasing in three world regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today in its weekly update.

In some countries in the Americas—one region where cases are rising—brisk flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) activity is also straining hospitals, prompting a warning today from the head of the WHO's Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

Asia, Americas see rising infections

In its update today, the WHO said cases last week rose 2% compared to the week before, led by rises in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Americas regions. Of more than 2.3 million cases reported to the WHO, the five countries reporting the most cases were Japan, South Korea, the United States, Germany, and China.

Deaths continue to show a steady decline, down 30% last week from the previous week.

Yesterday, Japan's daily COVID-19 cases topped 100,000 for the first time in 2 months, with Hokkaido and Tokyo as two of the hot spots, according to Kyodo News. South Korea's cases, now above 70,000 a day, are at their highest level since the middle of September, according to Yonhap News.

In the Southeast Asia region, Indonesia's cases rose 31% last week. And in the Americas, cases rose sharply in Brazil and to a lesser extent in Chile, with cases in the United States up 6% over the previous week.

B.5 and related Omicron subvariants continue to dominate worldwide, making up 73.2% of sequenced samples. Levels of BQ.1 continue to rise, up from 13.3% to 16.2%. BA.5 subvariants with different mutations rose from 22.4% to 23.3%, mainly due to BA.5 + R346X. Levels of BA.2.75 and XBB also rose slightly.

Three respiratory virus threats in Americas

At a PAHO briefing today, Carissa Etienne, MBBS, called on countries in the Americas to take steps to keep communities safe, such as vaccination, surveillance, masks, and distancing, especially during the lead-up to the holidays and with COVID-19, flu, and RSV all on the rise.

COVID-19 cases rose 17% in the Americas last week, with deaths rising in South America and Central America.

Flu is accelerating in North America, and out-of-season increases are under way in the Southern Cone of South America, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, where the situation is putting an unexpected stress on healthcare systems.

PAHO said RSV infections are burdening heathcare systems in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, and the United States, with the biggest impact on kids, including infants under age 1.

"The rise of a single respiratory infection is a cause for concern. When two or three start impacting a population concurrently, this should put us all on alert," Etienne said, warning that reduced testing may be hiding the true number of infections.

PAHO's revolving fund has obtained 39.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and 31 million flu vaccine doses, she said. "We have enough vaccines to keep us all safe. Let's use them," she said.

Steps to bolster pandemic preparedness

In other global developments, on Nov 13 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, global officials led by Indonesia's President Joko Widodo launched the Pandemic Fund, which is designed to boost pandemic preparedness capacity in low- and middle-income countries.

In a press release, the World Bank said the fund has $1.4 billion in seed funding from 24 donors. The fund is preparing for its first call for proposals in December or January and has a technical advisory panel in place to assess them and make recommendations.

At a WHO briefing today, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said world leaders at the G20 summit expresses support for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body that is negotiating the Pandemic Accord, an effort that began a year ago to strengthen pandemic preparedness, prevention, and response. A progress report on the effort is due in May 2023 to the World Health Assembly (WHA), and the measure is slated to be considered by the WHA in 2024.

Yesterday the WHO signed an agreement with Indonesia to establish a training hub for emergency medical teams to boost global readiness for health emergencies, Tedros said at today's briefing.

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