Covid news: World tops 500m known virus cases amid testing concerns

Recognition…Andrew Testa for the New York Times

The coronavirus continues to track the world at amazing speed, hurtling past a bleak set of pandemic milestones in 2022: 300 million total known cases around the world by early January, 400 million by early February, and half a billion as of Tuesday.

There have almost certainly been far more infections than among the world’s 7.9 billion population, many of which have gone undetected or unreported, and the reporting gap may only widen if some countries, including the United States, scale back official testing.

“It’s dangerous,” Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington and formerly at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent interview. “If you don’t test, you don’t know which variants you have.”

Regional officials from the World Health Organization recently urged African countries to step up testing and contact tracing, and urged some countries in the Americas to redouble efforts to increase vaccination and testing as cases continue to rise in Europe. (Britain, for example, ended free testing.) A WHO analysis also recently estimated that 65 percent of Africans had been infected with the coronavirus by September 2021, nearly 100 times the number of confirmed cases on the continent.

The number of new cases reported worldwide every day has been declining for some time; The average over the past week has been about 1.1 million cases per day, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. That is around 32 percent less than two weeks ago.

But over the course of the pandemic, countries with limited public health resources may have detected and confirmed only a tiny fraction of cases among their populations. And more recent numbers can miss many rapid at-home test results that are never officially reported. Many people with infections do not get tested at all because they have no symptoms, or do not have access to testing, or want to avoid the consequences of a positive test result, or choose not to do so for other reasons.

The number of corona deaths is also declining. The world reported an average of about 3,800 a day last week, down 23 percent from two weeks ago.

Nonetheless, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently that the world is in the acute phase of the pandemic, and many health experts agree.

Warnings from experts have not stopped many nations from almost entirely halting their pandemic preparedness in the two months since the global caseload surpassed 400 million. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines in late February that suggest most Americans could stop wearing masks and no longer need to social distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces.

“What’s happening around the world and in the US,” said Dr. Mokdad, “is that people have basically given up. They just want to get back to normal life.”

This desire is threatened by the rapid spread of the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, the most transmissible version of the virus identified to date. BA.2 now accounts for the vast majority of new cases in the United States and around the world; it spread even faster than BA.1, which helped fuel flares in winter.

The recent surge may have peaked in some parts of Europe, but Hong Kong is still trying to escape an outbreak that began in January, and Shanghai residents are in lockdown, reporting food shortages.

“The focus on new cases is warranted,” said Crystal Watson, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in a recent interview. “What we’re seeing in China is a very extreme increase in cases because they haven’t had much contact there and the vaccine is less effective there.”

More than 5.1 billion people — about 66.4 percent of the world’s population — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project. More than 1.7 billion booster shots or extra doses have been administered worldwide. However, coverage varies greatly between regions. Africa’s rates are the lowest of any continent, with about 20 percent of people having received at least one dose.

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