The global case tally of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 81.5 million on Tuesday, and the World Health Organization said the pandemic is not necessarily the big one that the world should brace for and urged people everywhere to learn from this crisis.
Speaking at the agency’s final press briefing for 2020, the WHO’s head of emergencies, Mike Ryan, said the coronavirus pandemic has been severe and affected every corner of the planet.
“But this is not necessarily the big one,” he said. “This is a wake-up call. We are learning now how to do things better — science, logistics, training, and governance, how to communicate better. But the planet is fragile. We live in an increasingly complex global society. These threats will continue. If there is one thing we need to take from this pandemic, with all of the tragedy and loss, [it] is [that] we need to get our act together. We need to honor those we’ve lost by getting better at what we do every day.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the cooperation between the private and public sectors that has led to the development of several vaccines in record time, which are now being rolled out around the world. That “is an incredible scientific achievement,” he said.
The WHO is working closely with scientists to understand the new variants of COVID-19 that have emerged in the U.K. and South Africa and evaluate whether they spread more quickly or make people sicker and have any potential impact on testing, treatments and vaccines.
“Specifically we are working with scientists in the U.K. and South Africa who are carrying out epidemiologic and laboratory studies, which will guide next steps,” he said.
In the meantime, the WHO is working to make sure the vaccines are made available to “those in need everywhere” and reminding people that, even with vaccines being distributed, they must adhere to public safety measures — frequent hand washing, socially distancing and wearing a face mask in public.
The U.S. has so far vaccinated 2.1 million people and distributed more than 11 million doses of the two vaccines that have been granted emergency-use authorization, one developed by Pfizer Inc. with its German partner BioNTech and one developed by Moderna Inc., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That is far below the early predictions made by “Operation Warp Speed,” the federal program created to accelerate the development of treatments and vaccines against COVID-19, according to Kavita Patel, a primary-care physician, and health-policy expert who served in the Obama White House.
Patel’s clinic is one of the sites that is part of the vaccination strategy in the District of Columbia, she said in an interview on MSNBC.
“In October, we heard from Operation Warp Speed that we would have 100 million doses by year-end,” she said. “We kind of thought that was unreasonable. Then the expectation dropped to 40 million and then to 20 million by the end of December. We have dosed 2.2 million, which is far short of that 20 million.”
The failure to meet vaccine targets, “feels like a let-down in so many ways, but I’m not surprised, sadly, given how testing has gone, tracing is not existing at all, and how we’re getting caught off-guard by this new [virus] variant because of our lack of genomic surveillance,” she said.
The U.S. recorded at least 188,934 new cases of COVID on Monday, and at least 1,899 people died, according to a New York Times tracker. In the past week, the U.S. has averaged 183,124 cases a day.
The number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals rose to a record of 121,235 on Monday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, topping the record of 120,151 set on Dec. 24.
The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 19.3 million, and fatalities, at 336,325, or about a fifth of the global tallies for each, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.