More Covid-19 infections and cases are expected at the current global trajectory but it can be stopped with stringent public health measures, the World Health Organization says.
Overnight, the number of deaths from Covid-19 reached a grim new milestone of 3 million people, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Even as richer countries look to accelerate the vaccine rollout, the WHO says the world is approaching our highest rate of infection since the pandemic began.
The WHO’s Dr Margaret Harris told Q+A we are "in a very, very difficult moment," saying, "We all would have liked to be able to say that we were getting on top of it and we’ve got the means to get on top of it".
She added that while New Zealand has demonstrated "what does work without using vaccines," over 805,000 confirmed cases have been reported in the last 24 hours.
“There were probably many more that have not been tested and when you consider it took up to six months for the world to accumulate 1 million cases, we’re doing close to 1 million cases every day at the moment so we really are seeing one of the highest rates of infection so far during the pandemic and some countries that have previously avoided widespread transmission are now seeing very steep increases in infections.”
Harris attributed the worsened global state to “a combination of factors," but said that vaccines "are not the only answer".
“They’re a great weapon and they will protect from illness - severe illness - and from death, but they will not necessarily prevent transmission,” she explained.
“What prevents transmissions is being really, really serious about the social distancing, about the quarantine, about ensuring that you test anyone, everyone, who potentially could have the infection and making sure you really separate those who are potentially infected from the rest of the population – that’s what works.”
She said while New Zealand has shown that strong and consistent public health measures work, other countries have seen mixed messages and "it's not about wealth".
"Some of the wealthiest countries in the world have got the worst outbreaks so this virus is a great leveller. It is a virus that takes advantage of the fact that we love to be together, we love to do things together, we seem to always want to be in large crowds – that is what’s hurting us," she said.
Cases have more than doubled around the globe for the last two months on a per week basis, which Harris said is being driven be countries with large populations, such as Brazil and, more recently, India.
“If a virus is really taking off somewhere in such a population, we will see much larger numbers. However, we have also seen that even in the largest countries, you can stop it in its tracks but you really have to double down on what we call those public health social measures – that’s the physical distancing, the quarantining and the testing," she said. "It’s very hard work but you can do it.”
While many governments around the world have paused the distribution of the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines over concerns they may cause blood clots in rare cases, Harris called it a "testimony to the hard work and the appropriate surveillance that these rare cases are picked up".
"What’s critical now is to understand what’s causing it and also that people knows what symptoms to look for and that medical practitioners are ready to check people out quickly and be treated if they are that one in a million person who has this reaction.”
Harris said boosters to Covid-19 vaccines, such as the one announed by Pfizer earlier this week, are expected as new strains emerge.
“As soon as a variant arrives, [vaccine developers] look at whether the vaccines are able to produce what you call neutralising antibodies, able to actually stop the variant in its tracks just as well as the vaccines could stop the original version," she explained.
"Overall, we’ve seen some pretty good results but it is one of those that must be ongoing and the research must continue and you may find that you have to have tweaks so you have to have boosters, so again the most important thing is to get the transmission down.
“The longer this virus is allowed to circulate in such vast numbers in our population, the more opportunity it has to change and make itself more efficient.”
Harris said while the current global trajectory suggests that "if we continue in this direction, that we will see many, many more cases and sadly, deaths," countries have "stopped this thing in its tracks".
“We have seen countries that have been in a trajectory going straight up that have taken serious measures, have got the community together, got the community behind it and stopped it and brought it down," she said.
“We know it can be stopped. The critical thing is really getting your community behind it and taking very serious measures and getting people to understand this is serious. It’s killed 3 million of our best people. We’ve lost a lot of our oldest and wisest, we’ve lost our memories; we’ve lost our parents; our grandparents so we’ve got to stop this and we can stop it.”