The world surpassed 80 million confirmed COVID-19 infections with 1.75 million deaths on Saturday, as the coronavirus — including a new strain — keeps accelerating and affects nearly every region.
The acceleration showed in the 15 days it took to add almost 10 million more cases, which was a day faster than the 16 days it took for the previous 10 million cases and two days faster than the 17 days it took for the 10 million cases before that.
The United States alone accounted for 18.7 million, or 23%, of all cases, with a staggering 330,500 deaths. That means one of every 17 Americans has been infected, and one in 1,000 has died.
A new strain of COVID-19, first detected in the United Kingdom, has been found among 11 European countries and, unlike with previous strains, appeared to spread among younger age groups, according to Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization's director for Europe. He urged countries to strengthen protective measures and vaccinate "priority groups."
WHO said initial analysis indicates the new strain may spread more readily between people, but investigations are now underway to determine if it is associated with any change in the severity of infection, antibody response or vaccine efficacy.
The 80-million milestone arrived the same day that the European Union — where at least 16 million cases and more than 336,000 deaths have been recorded — started shipping the two-shot vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer. It was approved just days earlier in the E.U. and also cleared the regulatory hurdles separately in Switzerland for people ages 16 and older.
Some of the E.U.'s 27 member nations, such as Hungary, Slovakia and Germany — where the vaccine was developed by a husband and wife team of scientists in Mainz, collaborating with U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and backed by US$469 million in German government funding — began administering the first shots on Saturday within hours of receiving them.
The E.U., with 450 million inhabitants, ordered an initial 200 million doses to be equally divided among nations based on population size. But each nation was only receiving up to 10,000 doses in the first deliveries on Saturday, and all those must be followed up with a second shot. More doses are to be delivered next month, as more vaccines become available.
"We are starting to turn the page on a difficult year," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "Today is delivery day, and tomorrow vaccination against COVID-19 is beginning across the European Union."
Doubling down on 'basics'
The Americas accounted for the greatest proportion of new cases, recording 2.3 million or half of the global cumulative total, according to WHO's latest situation report as of last Sunday. Europe had reported the highest number of new deaths, more than 36,000, or 46% of total figures, in a week.
Africa had the greatest relative increase in new cases, 27%, and deaths, 34%, compared to the previous week, WHO said. Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean region were the only places where cases and deaths decreased.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the situation has never been more difficult for health workers, requiring all leaders and citizens to take precautions to ease the pressure on medical systems. He urged people and authorities not to put all of their faith in the promising rollout of vaccination programs in some countries this month.
"Safe and effective vaccines give us hope, but they are not an excuse for people to let down their guard and put themselves and their loved ones at risk," Tedros told a press briefing last Monday. "Now is the time to double down on the public health basics that have seen many countries suppress the virus effectively."
Tedros said some groups continue to push a false narrative that the virus only affects the elderly, and that people can relax now that vaccines are coming. He emphasized that COVID-19 affects children and adults in different ways, and can attack every system in the body.
"And a growing number of people suffer with long-term consequences of the virus," he added. "This includes neurological complications for children and adults, which are still being researched."
The infection rate, which also shows the pandemic is not slowing down, rose to 10,280 per 1 million people globally. That is up from 8,986 per 1 million people globally at the 70 million mark on December 11, and from 7,770 per 1 million at the 60 million mark on November 25.
Before that, it had risen to 6,426 per 1 million at the 50 million mark on November 8 and to 5,151 per 1 million at the 40 million mark on October 19, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers.
Seventeen nations surpassed 1 million infections — the United States; India (10.1 million); Brazil (7.4 million); Russia (2.9 million); France (2.6 million); the United Kingdom (2.2 million); Turkey (2.1 million); Italy (2. million); Spain (1.8 million); Germany (1.6 million); Colombia and Argentina (1.5 million each); Mexico (1.3 million); Poland (1.2 million); Iran (1.1 million); Ukraine and Peru (1 million each). South Africa was not far behind them, with 983,000 cases.
That was up from the 14 nations that had at least 1 million infections when the 70 million mark arrived earlier this month.