The number of confirmed COVID-19 infections across the world topped 60 million with 1.4 million deaths on Wednesday, raising pressure on drug makers to produce new vaccines as the infection rate keeps climbing.
The grim milestone arrived just 17 days after the world reached the 50 million mark with 1.25 million deaths.
With the rate of new infections still accelerating, the United States and Europe each reported 1 million new coronavirus cases in less than a week. The United States alone accounts for 21% of all cases, with 12.7 million infections and 262,000 deaths.
A second wave of the pandemic hit Europe particularly hard — it is up to 16 million cases and 365,000 deaths — and World Health Organization special COVID-19 envoy Dr. David Nabarro predicted the continent would experience a third wave early next year without stronger measures.
"They missed building up the necessary infrastructure during the summer months, after they brought the first wave under the control," he told Swiss newspapers, adding that by contrast, nations in Asia did not let up on lockdowns and other restrictive precautions prematurely.
The U.N. health agency said Europe was the "largest contributor" to new cases and new deaths over the past week, though the continent, along with South Asia, continued "downward trends" in weekly caseloads. France and the United Kingdom, meantime, prepared to ease restrictions during the Christmas holidays. Germany extended its lockdown measures through mid-December. Caseloads were still rising in Japan and South Korea, but far less quickly than in Europe and the United States.
The infection rate rose to 7,770 per 1 million people globally. That is up from 6,426 per 1 million at the 50 million mark on November 8; from 5,151 per 1 million at the 40 million mark on October 19; and from 3,866 per 1 million at the 30 million mark on September 17.
More than 38.8 million people have now recovered from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers.
Eleven nations have surpassed 1 million infections — the United States; India (9.2 million); Brazil (6.1 million); France (2.2 million); Russia (2.1 million); Spain (1.6 million); the United Kingdom (1.5 million); Italy (1.4 million); Argentina (1.3 million); Colombia (1.2 million); and Mexico (1 million) — up from nine nations when the 50 million mark arrived earlier this month.
Germany, Peru, Poland and Iran were not far behind them, each with more than 900,000 cases.
'This isn't charity'
The figures from the trackers reflect only the numbers of cases that have been confirmed from testing and reported by governments. The true numbers are likely to be at least 10 times higher, according to health experts, since in many places testing has been limited, some governments underreport the number of cases, and many people experience no symptoms.
After the coronavirus was first reported in China in late December, WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic — the worldwide spread of a new disease — on March 11, marking the first time a coronavirus gained that distinction.
Since the 50 million mark was reached, drug makers such as Moderna and Pfizer have reported major advances towards an effective vaccine. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that vaccines alone will not end the pandemic, since nations also must provide case finding, care and isolation, cluster investigations, adequate testing with rapid results, contact tracing and supported quarantine.
He also has kept pleading for more support for the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a global collaboration among 10 international organizations to raise US$35 billion for speeding development and production of coronavirus tests, medicines and vaccines worldwide.
"There is now real hope that vaccines – in combination with other tried and tested public health measures – will help to end the pandemic. The significance of this scientific achievement cannot be overstated," Tedros told a press briefing on Monday. "But there is now a real risk that the poorest and most vulnerable will be trampled in the stampede for vaccines.
Tedros said achieving the "full promise" of the ACT Accelerator will require US$4.3 billion immediately for mass procurement and delivery of vaccines, tests and treatments, while another US$23.8 billion will be needed next year. "This isn’t charity," he added. "It’s the fastest and smartest way to end the pandemic and drive the global economic recovery."