The agency blamed the global surge in part on the meteoric rise of the delta variant, which has now spread to 124 countries and is on track to become the dominant coronavirus strain worldwide.
In Tokyo on Wednesday, as the Olympics officially began, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned sports officials about the dire state of the pandemic in mostly poorer countries that have struggled to secure coronavirus vaccines.
He also urged the officials, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, to make sure that any virus cases linked to the Games “are identified, isolated, traced and cared for as quickly as possible.”
Some global and Japanese health experts have cautioned that the Games could become a “superspreader” event. Tokyo on Wednesday reported its highest number of daily new cases since mid-January, the Kyodo News agency reported.
“The pandemic is a test. And the world is failing,” Tedros said in his address.
“The global failure to share vaccines, tests and treatments … is fueling a two-track pandemic,” he said. “The more transmission, the more variants will emerge with the potential to be even more dangerous than the delta variant that is causing such devastation now.”
The WHO said in its weekly update that in many countries, the delta variant now accounts for more than 75 percent of sequenced virus samples, citing data from the open-access GISAID database headquartered in Germany. Those countries include Australia, Britain, China, Denmark, Israel, Russia and South Africa.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Wednesday that the delta variant is now dominant in France, where more than 18,000 new cases were reported the previous day.
“The delta variant is the majority one, it is more contagious," he told TF1 television, Reuters reported.
The WHO on Tuesday said there is “growing evidence” that the delta variant is in fact more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus, citing recent studies in Canada and China.
“However, the exact mechanism for the increase in transmissibility remains unclear," it said.
The agency pointed to a recent study in China during an outbreak of the delta variant that showed that it may be able to replicate faster and be more contagious during the early stages of infection. In Canada, researchers analyzed data from more than 200,000 cases and found a heightened risk of hospitalization, ICU admission and death associated with the delta variant.