Global Covid cases rise for first time in seven weeks as WHO warns pandemic will not end this year

Sarah Newey
·3-min read
Healthcare professionals perform Covid-19 swab tests on students of the University 'La Sapienza' of Rome - ANGELO CARCONI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
Healthcare professionals perform Covid-19 swab tests on students of the University 'La Sapienza' of Rome - ANGELO CARCONI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Coronavirus cases have risen globally for the first time in seven weeks, bucking an unprecedented trend which had raised hopes the pandemic was finally abating.

In the World Health Organization’s epidemiological report last week, the UN agency said new infections had fallen worldwide for the sixth consecutive week – the first time such a sustained drop had been seen since the pandemic began. However, the decline has now halted.

“We need to have a stern warning for all of us: that this virus will rebound if we let it,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead for Covid-19, told a press conference on Monday. “And we cannot let it.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the UN agency, added that the latest analysis shows infections have risen in four of the six WHO regions: the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

“This is disappointing, but not surprising,” Dr Tedros said.

Health experts are working to understand why transmission has increased, he added, but it appears to be linked to the relaxation of public health measures and “people letting their guard down” while circulation remains widespread.

The first 0.5 millilitre shot of the Oxford AstraZeneca jab went into the arm of Secrétaire général de la présidence, Patrick Achi - Paul Nuki
The first 0.5 millilitre shot of the Oxford AstraZeneca jab went into the arm of Secrétaire général de la présidence, Patrick Achi - Paul Nuki

The decline comes as countries ramp up vaccination campaigns across the globe. In a major step milestone for low and middle income countries, the first jabs were administered via the vaccine sharing Covax scheme in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire on Monday.

Dr Tedros said a further 11 million doses will be distributed through the initiative this week, rising to 277 million by the end of May. But the WHO chief warned against complacency.

“Vaccines will help to save lives, but if countries rely solely on vaccines they are making a mistake,” he said. “Basic public health measures remain the foundation of the response.”

Similar warnings have been shared by the UK’s top scientists, including Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty, following modelling presented to the government’s Sage advisory group suggesting that the virus would have space to spread even if 80 per cent of adults are vaccinated.

Speaking at the WHO press conference Dr Mike Ryan, head of the organisation’s emergencies programme, added that it would be “very premature” to suggest the pandemic will be over by Christmas.

“Right now the virus is very much in control,” he said. “I think it's unrealistic to think that we're going to finish with this virus by the end of the year.

“But I think that we can, if we're smart, finish [this year] without the hospitalisations, the deaths and the tragedy associated with this pandemic.”

Dr Ryan added that the situation has improved over the past 10 weeks, as public health restrictions have taken hold and vaccines have been rolled out.

Yet many hurdles are still in place, he said, particularly around equitable distribution of jabs, he said. Despite the roll out of jabs through Covax, maps showing vaccination campaigns globally still show a stark imbalance between the wealthiest countries and the rest of the world.

“It's regrettable that some countries continue to prioritise vaccinating younger healthier adults at lower risk of diseases in their own populations, ahead of health workers and older people elsewhere,” Dr Tedros said.

“We're not asking countries to put their own people at risk. We're asking all countries to be part of a global effort to suppress the virus, everywhere.”

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security