It took more than a year for the world to register the first 100 million cases of coronavirus, and half that time to count the next 100 million.
The third 100 million have arrived even faster, in just five months, as large segments of countries, rich and poor alike, remain unvaccinated and a nifty new variant has been shown to be able to infect even those who are. .
The number of cases, while imperfect, has been a key barometer throughout the pandemic, a benchmark not only for governments implementing mitigation measures, but also for people trying to discern the threat in their lives. own communities. Yet the surpassing of 300 million known cases – which was recorded on Thursday, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University – comes as a growing number of experts argue it’s time to stop focusing on the number of cases.
So far, the new Omicron variant appears to be producing serious illness in fewer people than previous versions of the virus, and research indicates that Covid vaccines still offer protection against worse outcomes. And although cases are increasing faster than ever – the United States, Australia, France and many other countries are seeing record increases – hospitalizations and deaths from Covid are increasing more slowly.
But experts fear the large number of possible cases may still weigh on health systems already strained by previous outbreaks.
This week, Dr Anthony S. Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert, suggested it was time to stop focusing on the number of cases.
“As you go along and the infections get less severe, it’s much more relevant to focus on hospitalizations,” Dr Fauci told ABC News on Sunday.
About 60% of the world has received at least a single dose of a Covid vaccine, but almost three-quarters of all vaccines have been given in the richest countries of the world, leaving people in parts of Africa and d ‘Vulnerable Asia.
In the United States, the number of cases averages 610,000 per day, a 227% increase from two weeks ago. Hospitalizations are increasing at a slower rate, up 60% in the past two weeks, while deaths are up 2%. In France, the average number of daily cases has quadrupled to a record high, while hospitalizations have increased by around 70% and deaths have doubled, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
The trend suggests that the grim pace seen over the past two years – a wave of infections, followed by a corresponding increase in hospitalizations, and then deaths – has been altered, in large part because of the protection offered by vaccines. .
And due to the increasing availability of home testing in the United States and Europe, the official numbers of cases – which scientists have long argued is undercoverage – may diverge more than never actual totals. Not all home tests are reported to authorities, and many people may never get tested. Even before the emergence of Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that only one in four infections in the United States has been reported.
About this data
Sources: State and local health agencies (cases, deaths); US Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
The numbers of cases “certainly mean less than they did” earlier in the pandemic, said Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College of London. “If we had had this number of infections, we would have had an astronomical number of deaths.”
Yet the known death toll remains devastating: over 830,000 in the United States, 620,000 in Brazil, nearly half a million in India. In many developing countries with huge gaps in health data, the true number may never be known.
And Omicron’s impact could be more severe among populations less protected from vaccines. Some of the fastest increases in cases are occurring in African countries, which have the lowest vaccination rates. Less than a handful of countries on the continent are on track to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of giving two doses to 70 percent of their population, even as rich countries have offered a third.
“Recall after recall in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic as long as billions remain completely unprotected,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.
What is clear, according to many experts, is that the virus is likely to become endemic, something the world will have to live with for years to come, like the flu – and that by the time the world has 400 million cases, as it surely is will, this statistic will mean even less than it does now.
“I think when we had the first wave a lot of people felt – not experts, but the public and many politicians felt – that if we could only weather the storm, we could come out the other side at summer 2020 and everything would be rosy, ”said Professor West. “We now know that will never be true. “
Anna schaverien contributed reports.