It took more than a decade for the world’s first 100 million coronavirus cases to be recorded, and it took half as long to add the next 100 millions.
The third 100 million arrived even faster, in less than five months. Large sections of countries, poor and rich alike, are still not vaccinated. A fast-growing new variant has also been proven to infect those who are.
Although imperfect, case counts have been an important barometer during the pandemic. They are used not only to help governments implement mitigation measures, but also to help people in their communities identify the threat. Yet surpassing 300 million known cases — a milestone that was reached on Thursday, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University — comes as a growing number of experts argue that it is time to stop focusing on case numbers.
Research has shown that Omicron’s new variant of the virus causes severe illness in fewer people, and that Covid vaccines offer protection against the worst outcomes. And though cases are rising faster than ever — the United States, Australia, France and many other nations are seeing record surges — hospitalizations and deaths from Covid are increasing more slowly.
Experts are concerned that the sheer number possible cases could still cause problems for health care systems already overwhelmed by previous waves.
This week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, suggested that it was time to stop focusing on case counts.
“As you get further on and the infections become less severe, it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations,” Dr. Fauci told ABC News on Sunday.
About 60 percent of the world has received at least a single dose of a Covid vaccine, but nearly three-quarters of all the shots have been administered in the world’s wealthiest nations, leaving people in parts of Africa and Asia vulnerable.
The average number of cases in the United States is 610,000 per day, which is a 227 percent increase over two weeks ago. Hospitalizations are increasing at a slower pace, up 60 percent in two weeks. However, deaths are up by 2%. According to the Our World in Data project from the University of Oxford, France has seen an increase in daily cases by around 70% and a decrease in deaths.
The trend suggests that the grim cadence seen for the past two years — a wave of infections, followed by a matching surge of hospitalizations, then deaths — has been altered, in large part because of the protection offered by vaccines.
And because of the widening availability of at-home tests in the United States and Europe, official case numbers — which scientists have long argued are an undercount — may diverge more than ever from actual totals. Many people may not get tested because not all home tests are reported to the authorities. Omicron was first reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sources: State and local hospitals (cases, death), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Case numbers “definitely mean less than they did” earlier in the pandemic, said Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London. “If we had this number of infections then, we’d have had an astronomical number of deaths.”
Yet, the death toll remains shocking: more than 830,000 in America, 620,000 Brazil, and almost half a Million in India. It is possible that the true number could never be known because of large gaps in health data in many developing countries.
And Omicron’s impact could be harsher among populations with less protection from vaccines. African countries have the lowest vaccination rates and are experiencing the fastest increase in cases. Only a few African countries are on track to reach the World Health Organization goal of giving two doses of vaccine to 70% of their population, despite rich nations offering a third.
“Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected,” the W.H.O. director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Thursday.
What is clear, many experts say, is that the virus is likely to become endemic, something that the world will have to live with for years to come, like the flu — and that by the time the world records case 400 million, as it surely will, that 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 in the summer of 2020 and everything would be rosy,” Professor West said. “We know now that is never going to be true.”
Anna SchaverienContributed reporting
Source: NY Times