Even the delta variant, which was first identified in India and is now tearing through unvaccinated populations around the world, “is itself mutating and will continue to do so,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead at the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.
“There are more than two dozen countries that have epidemic curves that are almost vertical right now,” she said. “We’re not in a good place.”
At the same time, “some countries with high vaccination coverage are … relaxing as though the pandemic is already over,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The world is at a perilous point in this pandemic … far too many countries in every region in the world are seeing sharp spikes in cases and hospitalization.”
His remarks came as several nations, particularly in Europe, were set to fully reopen or had already lifted some virus curbs, even as the delta variant was gaining ground.
In Spain, authorities in some regions reimposed restrictions on nightlife this week amid a surge in infections among younger people who have not yet been vaccinated. A French minister on Thursday advised residents to refrain from traveling to Spain and Portugal, where the delta variant is prevalent.
In England, where at least 95 percent of new cases are caused by the delta variant, Johnson announced plans to relax nearly all coronavirus-related restrictions later this month. The move to reopen could lead to a daily case rate of 100,000 this summer, Britain’s health secretary said earlier this week. But officials there say that widespread vaccinations will help keep hospitalizations and deaths down.
“It’s been good to see the drop-off in hospitalizations and deaths in many countries that are achieving high vaccination levels,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said at the briefing.
He also pointed to a 33 percent increase last week in new cases in the 53 countries that make up the WHO’s European region.
“I think that it’s also a moment for extreme caution for countries right now,” he said. “So the idea that everyone is protected and it’s Kumbaya and everything goes back to normal — I think that is a very dangerous assumption anywhere in the world. And it’s still a dangerous assumption in the European environment.”
According to the WHO and data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the pandemic’s official global death toll surpassed 4 million Wednesday, a figure Tedros said was probably an underestimate.
More than 605,000 of those deaths were recorded in the United States. But in recent months, less developed nations such as Brazil and India have contributed to a growing share of coronavirus deaths, as outbreaks in both countries ran rampant through unvaccinated populations.
Covid-19 has killed about 530,000 people in Brazil, while in India at least 404,000 fatalities have been blamed on the virus — figures experts think are vast undercounts.