The World Health Organization's (WHO's) top official said today that cases and deaths have doubled over the past 2 months and are at worrying rates, even in countries that had avoided earlier surges.
In India, currently one of the world's worst hot spots, cases reached a record high for the eighth day in a row, as the country's health officials looked for ways to increase vaccine production.
Sharp rises, even in strong-response nations
Weekly cases peaked the week of Jan 4 with about 5 million cases, and weekly levels are approaching that number, with cases up for the seventh week in a row. At a briefing today, the WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said Papua New Guinea (PNG) is among the countries that had avoided widespread transmission in earlier in the pandemic, but is now reporting a sharp increase that WHO officials worry could trigger a much larger epidemic.
Vaccination began in late March with help from Australia, and PNG has now received 132,000 doses from COVAX, the WHO-led program to ensure equitable access. WHO experts are on the ground, alongside medical teams from Australia, Germany, and the United States.
In other Asian developments, Thailand—another country that has been praised for its pandemic response—reported a record case high for the fifth day in a row. Health officials announced a 2-week closure of bars, massage parlors, and schools and have put a cap on gatherings, according to Reuters. The country is also building field hospitals and arranging for those with asymptomatic infections to isolate in hotels.
Also, Japanese health officials have put four more prefectures under a quasi state of emergency, and the head of the Tokyo Summer Olympics said the postponed games—3 months away—will not be cancelled, despite rising cases, according to the Associated Press.
Plans to boost vaccine production in India
India today reported another record daily high, with 217,353 new cases, according to Reuters. Some of the country's major cities are hot spots and local officials have ordered new restrictions, but crowds at a large religious pilgrimage and political rallies pose challenges to curbing the outbreak spread.
The country is urgently looking for ways to boost its vaccine production and yesterday approved another domestic facility to make Bharat Biotech's COVAXIN vaccine, for which it hopes to boost production to about 100 million doses by September. The Indian government has also appealed to the United States to lift its embargo on the export of raw materials needed to ramp up vaccine production, according to a separate Reuters story.
Experts eye role of variants in India's surge
As officials sort through the reasons behind India's surge in cases, the country's experts have been tracking a double-mutation variant called B1617. The variant, first detected in October, made up 24% of samples sequenced in early April, but now accounts for 80%, according to the Hindustan Times.
The variant first gained a foothold in Maharashtra state, the early epicenter in India's current surge, and is now found in all parts of the country.
At today's WHO briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the group's technical lead for COVID-19, said B1617 is one of the variants of interest that the WHO has been following and that Indian scientists presented their latest findings to the WHO's virus evolution working group on Apr 12. She said the variant has two concerning mutations seen in other variants, one that's related to increased transmissibility and the other with decreased virus neutralization, which may have an impact on countermeasures, such as vaccines.
Van Kerkhove said more efforts are underway to improve virus sequencing to track the spread, as well as link the information to epidemiological and clinical data. She said B1617 has been detected in other parts of the world, including Asia and North America.
More global headlines
- Australian regulators today reported a third case of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia in someone who received the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. In a statement, they said the patient is a 48-year-old woman who was admitted to the hospital for the condition 4 days after she was immunized on Apr 8. She died in the hospital. The group added that the first two patients are receiving treatment in the hospital and are recovering.
- The United Nations World Food Program said today that conflict and economic fallout from COVID-19 are fueling a rise in food process, which is worsening a hunger emergency in West and Central Africa. It warned that the situation is expected to worsen over the summer and immediate action is needed to prevent a catastrophe.
- The global total today topped 139 million cases and is now at 139,488,232 with 2,991,707 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.