Global COVID cases rising again

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After 5 weeks of declining cases, global COVID-19 cases rose last week, fueled by increasing cases in three regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday in its latest weekly update.

In the United States, levels of the more transmissible BA.2 subvariant showed more signs of rising, as the country grapples with funding the ongoing pandemic response.

Cases rise in Asia, Africa, and Europe

Last week, cases rose 8% compared to the week before, led by increases in the Western Pacific region that include Asia's current hot spots, Africa, and Europe. However, deaths continued to decline, falling 17% compared to the previous week.

Of more than 11 million cases reported globally last week, the five countries with the most cases included South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, the Netherlands, and France.

At a WHO media briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the new rises are occurring despite reduced testing in some countries, "which means the cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg."

He said more local outbreaks and surges are expected, especially where COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. However, he raised concerns about unacceptably high mortality levels in many countries where vaccination levels are low in susceptible populations.

"Each country is facing a different situation with different challenges, but the pandemic is not over," Tedros said.

Roughly half of last week's cases were from the Western Pacific region, where surges are underway in hot spots such as Hong Kong, South Korea, and Vietnam. Hong Kong today reported nearly 29,272 new cases and 217 deaths, and health officials are looking for more health workers to staff temporary treatment centers. China reported 3,045 new cases today, 1,860 of them asymptomatic, with more than half of the cases from hard-hit Jilin province, which is under lockdown and where authorities are calling for mass testing and adding treatment and quarantine centers. Meanwhile, South Korea today reported a new record daily high of more than 400,000 cases.

Africa's weekly cases—up 8%—rose for the first time since January, with the biggest rises in Mauritius, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Europe's cases were up last week to a lesser degree, with an increase of 2%, with cases increasing 20% or more in 12 countries and the sharpest rises occurring in Monaco, Malta, and the Netherlands. Germany's 7-day average of new daily cases reached another record high, while France's health minister said the country's latest spike could peak by the end of March.

US BA.2 levels show more signs of rise

In the United States, the 7-day average for daily new cases continues to slowly decline and today was at 31,997, according to the Washington Post tracker. But public health officials are bracing for a possible resurgence in the United States, which often follows rises in Europe.

One of a number of factors suspected in current rises overseas, alongside eased restrictions and waning immunity, is increased spread of BA.2—Omicron's more transmissible subvariant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that BA.2 made up 23.1% of the nation's circulating variants during the week ending on Mar 12, up from 13.7% the previous week.

Despite the looming threat of more virus spread, programs to battle COVID-19 appear likely to be phased back due to uncertainty over funding. Last week Congress declined to add $22 billion to the government funding bill, and the White House said yesterday it will start to wind down a program that supports testing, treating, and vaccinating uninsured people, according to NPR. The Biden Administration has also signaled that it would cancel plans to buy more monoclonal antibodies.

In other US developments:

  • The Senate yesterday voted to end the federal masking requirement for passengers on planes and other public transportation, but the measure isn't certain to pass in the House of Representatives, and President Biden has said he would veto it.
  • The White House announced yesterday that Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, has tested positive for COVID-19. Harris has tested negative, but has cut back on her schedule.
  • Pfizer and BioNTech yesterday formally submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use of a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine for people age 65 and older, based on data that suggest waning protection after the initial booster dose.

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