WHO sees signs of global COVID-19 plateau

After a steady rise for nearly 2 months, the pace of the world's COVID-19 cases seems to be plateauing, though levels continue to rise in the Western Pacific and Americas regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in its latest pandemic snapshot.

Also, an American intelligence probe into the source of SARS-CoV-2, presented to President Biden yesterday, was inconclusive, while authors of a report that detailed the WHO's joint mission to China warned that the window is closing for key studies on the virus origin.

Pattern plateaus at a high level

The world reported 4.5 million cases last week, showing signs of stabilization, the WHO said in its situation report. However, cases in the Western Pacific region rose 20%, led by increases in places like Japan in the Philippines, while infections in the Americas, fueled by surges in the United States and other countries, increased by 8%.

Globally, deaths stayed the same as last week, with 68,000 more fatalities reported. However, levels rose in the Europe and Americas region.

At a WHO media briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, warned that though stable, cases are still at a very high level, with the situation varying by region, country, province, and even town.

"As long as this virus is circulating anywhere, it’s a threat everywhere," he said.

"There are no shortcuts. WHO continues to recommend a comprehensive, risk-based approach of proven public health and social measures, in combination with equitable vaccination."

The five countries that reported the most cases last week include the United States, Iran, India, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. Few countries reported large increases for the week, though cases were up 34% in Japan and 25% in the Philippines.

Seven more countries reported their first detections of the highly transmissible Delta (1617.2) variant, raising the total to 163.

At a briefing today, officials from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said the United States, Mexico, and Brazil continue to report high case numbers, with levels rising in parts of Central America and the Caribbean region.

They added that though hospitalizations in South American countries are dropping, cases are still high and that countries should stay on top of new outbreaks.

Officials said vaccination is the weak spot of the Americas response, with only 3% fully vaccinated in Guatemala and just over 4% immunized in Jamaica. Vaccination in Haiti has been delayed in the aftermath of Haiti's natural disasters.

Meanwhile, the WHO's African regional office said in its latest weekly outbreaks and health emergencies report that cases have declined for the sixth week in a row in its third wave, which started in the middle of May. However, weekly cases were up by 20% or more in 16 countries. Vaccine supply is improving, with immunizations nearly tripling since June.

US virus-origins report inconclusive

A 90-day US intelligence investigation into the source of SARS-CoV-2 ordered by President Biden in May, due yesterday, yielded inconclusive results, sources familiar with the report told the Washington Post. The intelligence community is taking steps to declassify parts of the report for possible public release.

In March, an international joint mission to China that was led by the WHO didn't rule out a lab source, but said a jump from an intermediate host to a human was the most likely scenario. However, suspicions have swirled around a possible lab leak in Wuhan, mainly fueled by political tensions. China has denied the lab leak theories, with some Chinese officials pushing a narrative that a leak at an Army infectious disease lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, is the source.

The WHO has been caught in the crossfire over the virus source, fending off charges that it has been too deferential to China, but also facing pushback from China after asking for more raw data and stored blood samples to review. China has also rejected a WHO outline for a second phase of study into the virus source.

In a related development, the authors of the WHO China joint mission said today in a report to Nature that the search for the origin is at a "critical juncture," with the window rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting critical trace-back studies on people and animals.

"SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns," they wrote, adding that wildlife farms that supplied cities across China, including Wuhan, are now closed and animals have been culled, making any spillover evidence hard to find.

While praising a recent WHO announcement about the formation of an expert committee to oversee future origin investigations, they raised concerns that the new process risks adding several months of delay. And they called on the science community to join forces to expedite the phase 2 study areas they outlined while there is still time.

WHO officials today said setting up the new group won't delay progress on the studies, which it has been advocating for months. Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, said the expert group's formation is moving ahead swiftly and that the terms of reference, timelines, and expectations have already been made public.

More global headlines

  • Brazil's health ministry said today that it will allow booster shots for those older than 70 and people with weakened immune systems, starting in the middle of September, according to Reuters.

  • Japan today expanded its state of emergency to eight more prefectures, according to Kyodo News. So far, 21 of the country's 47 prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka, are under a state of emergency, which affects 75% of Japan's population.

  • In Australia, New South Wales state—home to the country's hot spot, Sydney—reported a new record high of 919 cases today, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Nearly 80% of the state's intensive care unit (ICU) beds are full, 17% of them with COVID-19 patients, and some hospitals have set up makeshift units to triage patients.

  • New Zealand today reported a record 62 new cases, mostly in Auckland, according to the New Zealand Herald. Officials said six subclusters have emerged in the outbreak, and while cases are growing steadily, the increase isn't exponential.

  • The global total today rose to 213,617,953 cases, and 4,457,967 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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