Two million coronavirus deaths “not impossible”, says WHO

As the global death toll from the coronavirus disease approaches one million people, WHO says the number could double

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is “not impossible” that the number of coronavirus deaths could hit two million if countries do not work uniformly to suppress the spread of the virus.

“It’s certainly unimaginable, but it’s not impossible, because if we look at losing one million people in nine months and then we just look at the realities of getting vaccines out there in the next nine months, it’s a big task for everyone involved,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of the health emergencies programme at WHO, has said.

“The real question is: Are we prepared, collectively, to do what it takes to avoid that number?” Ryan said.

Since the coronavirus emerged late last year from Wuhan, China, it has infected more than 32 million people worldwide and killed at least 983,900 people as of 25 September, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 fatality rates have slowly declined over the course of the pandemic because scientists and health experts have made strides in treating seriously ill patients through better use of oxygen and the steroid dexamethasone, among other therapeutics, Ryan said during a press briefing in Geneva.

More deaths likely

However, two million or more coronavirus deaths could be reported before a vaccine becomes widely available if world leaders do not implement lifesaving measures more effectively and “evolve the nature and scale and intensity of our co-operation”, Ryan said.

“The time for action is now on every single aspect of this strategic approach,” Ryan said.

“Not just test and trace, not just clinical care, not just social distancing, not just hygiene, not just masks, not just vaccines. Do it all. And unless we do it all, [two million deaths] are not only imaginable but unfortunately and sadly very likely.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO on the COVID-19 pandemic, said that several countries in Europe are reporting an “increasing trend in cases”. That increase is partly due to better testing, but there has also been a “worrying” rise in COVID-19 hospitalisations and intensive-care unit admissions, she said.

Still not peaked

Coronavirus cases were growing by 5% or more compared with a week ago, based on a seven-day average to smooth out the reporting, in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, according to a CNBC analysis of Hopkins data as of 24 September.

“We’re at the end of September, not even towards the end of September, and we haven’t even started our flu season yet,” Van Kerkhove said.

He added: “What we are worried about is the possibility that these trends are going in the wrong direction.”

Countries join forces

WHO is working to provide COVID-19 vaccines to populations across the globe through the COVID-19 vaccine global access facility, or COVAX.

The facility aims to work with vaccine manufacturers to protect the most vulnerable populations, such as older people and health-care workers.

As of 25 September, 159 countries had committed to joining COVAX, but the final count could be “well over” 170 countries and economies, said Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor to the director general of WHO.

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