Global COVID-19 cases up 5th straight week, deaths follow

In its weekly snapshot of global COVID-19 activity, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday that new cases rose for the fifth week in a row, an increase that now includes all six of its regions, with deaths accelerating for the second straight week.

In other developments, expert groups that continue to weigh potential side effects of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine said benefits still outweigh the risks, and the WHO today said that ivermectin should only be used to treat COVID-19 within clinical trials.

Cases trend up in all parts of globe

In its latest situation report, the WHO said of the more than 3.8 million cases added to the global total last week, the five countries reporting the most were Brazil, the United States, India, France, and Poland. Meanwhile, countries reporting some of the steepest rises include Bangladesh (85%), India (55%), Turkey (47%), and the Philippines (43%).

Cases rose even in some countries in the African region, where cases had declined over the previous 2 weeks. For example, Kenya's cases increased 25% and Ethiopia's new infections increased 14%.

Regarding SARS-CoV-2 variant activity, 5 more countries reported the B117 virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom, raising the total to 130. Five more countries reported the B1351 variant that was first found in South Africa, lifting the total to 80. And four more countries reported the P1 virus first identified in Brazil, bringing the number to 45.

In the Americas, officials from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said today at a briefing that over the past 4 weeks, the region has averaged 1 million new cases a week, signaling that transmission is very active in many places.

Carissa Etienne, MBBS, MSc, PAHO's director, said the winding down of the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere and vacation season is being followed by rising cases in many countries. Some—including Paraguay, Uruguay, and Cuba—are experiencing worse outbreaks than they faced in 2020. She warned that the region's surge could be worse than its last one and called on individuals and governments to play roles in protecting communities.

Etienne said the rise in cases is overwhelming hospitals in many countries, with intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy topping 80% in all but two of Brazil's states and Jamaica's hospitals operating well above capacity. She also said the surge is stretching supplies of oxygen and anesthetic drugs in Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere.

"This underscores the dire consequences of a pandemic that can quickly overburden our health systems: that even a well-established supply chain is struggling to cope," she said.

Officials say AstraZeneca benefits outweigh risks

Global health groups continue their investigations into a possible blood clot link to the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, with possible cases still being reported and some countries continuing their pauses in vaccination or limiting immunization to older age groups.

In its regularly scheduled meeting, the WHO's vaccine advisory group said its safety monitoring still shows that the risk-benefit equation weighs heavily in favor of its use, Alejandro Cravioto, MD, PhD, who chairs the group's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization, said at a briefing afterward, according to Reuters.

Also, experts from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) met this week to discuss the latest findings. In a statement today, it said reviews have not identified any specific risk factors, such as age, sex, or clotting disorder history, for the very rare events. "A causal link with the vaccine is not proven, but is possible and further analysis is continuing," it said.

The EMA repeated its view from earlier this month that AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine benefits outweighs the risk of side effects. It said it continues to investigate the connection and will update its recommendation after its meeting in the second week of April.

Other global headlines

  • The WHO today said evidence is inconclusive regarding ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19, and it recommends that the drug only be used in clinical trial settings. In a statement, it said its recommendation applies to patients with any disease severity. The WHO's guideline development group looked at 16 randomized controlled trials that enrolled 2,407 patients, including both inpatients and outpatients.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron, in an address to the nation today, announced tighter COVID-19 restrictions, warning that the country must take new steps or risk losing control of the virus, according to CNN. The limited lockdown takes effect on Apr 3 and lasts at least 1 month. The steps keep curfews in place, limit domestic travel, and urge people to work from home. Nurseries and schools (primary and secondary) will close for at least 3 weeks.

  • The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) today launched a $200 million funding call to advance the development of vaccines that broadly protect against SARS-CoV-2 and betacoronaviruses. In a statement, it said development of vaccines against variants is already underway, but more approaches are needed to stay one step ahead of them, other betacoronaviruses, and other novel coronaviruses that will emerge in the future.

  • The WHO's SAGE group said China's Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines meet its efficacy requirements and that it hopes to issue recommendations on them by the end of April, according to Reuters.

  • In China, the city of Ruili—in the southwest, near the border with Myanmar—went on lockdown after a cluster of six local cases was detected, according to Reuters.

  • The global total today rose to 128,628,738 cases, and 2,808,907 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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