The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has passed 100 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University data, just over a year since the first cases of the then ‘mysterious’ new illness were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
During the past 12 months, the pandemic has forced governments to order shutdowns, curfews, travel bans and other public health restrictions to try and stem the spread of infections. Economies have been hard hit and inequalities of all types have been exacerbated.
More than 2.1 million people around the world have died from COVID-19, and more than 55 million people have recovered from the disease.
“This is a situation where we have seen those countries that have acted early and where political leaders have listened to public health advisers tend to do much better in containing the virus than those countries where we have seen more populist leaders, most notably the United States,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in global health security and an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney told Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately, as the WHO has indicated this is probably still early days for the pandemic. There’s a lot more work that needs to be put in to see this event contained.”
Despite the development of more effective treatments for the coronavirus and the roll out of vaccines across dozens of countries, mutant strains of the virus recently detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil have created uncertainty.
“Today the world crossed 100 million reported cases,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said on Tuesday.
“A year ago, the novel coronavirus was barely making headlines. Where do we want to be a year from now? Let’s aim for robust vaccination coverage worldwide, and a transition from community mitigation to case-based management,” she tweeted.
The US has recorded the most cases of any country to date at more than 25.3 million – approximately one-quarter of the global total. With more than 424,000 deaths recorded, the US also has the highest death toll in the world.
US President Joe Biden, who officially took office last week and has promised to get surging infection rates under control, said in a news conference on Tuesday that his administration plans to buy 200 million more vaccine doses.
“The end goal is to beat COVID-19, and the way we do that is to get more people vaccinated,” Biden told reporters.
India has confirmed the second-highest total number of cases in the world, with more than 10.6 million infections reported. More than 153,000 people have died from the virus there.
Brazil has confirmed more than 8.8 million cases and has the second-highest death toll, with 217,000 fatalities.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the threat of the virus, has faced growing protests over his government’s handling of the pandemic – and the particularly devastating toll it has taken on the Amazonian city of Manaus, where oxygen is in short supply and hospitals are full.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also under pressure over his government’s handling of the pandemic. On Tuesday, the country became the first in Europe – and the fifth in the world – to record more than 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
“I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,” Johnson said.
The discovery of new variants of the virus has caused governments around the world to impose fresh restrictions.
US pharmaceutical company Moderna said it believes its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the new variants, although it will test a new booster shot aimed at the strain discovered in South Africa after tests showed the antibody response could be reduced.
The vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech works against 15 possible virus mutations. However, E484K, another mutation in South Africa, is not among those tested, according to a study released on January 7.
US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said earlier this month that vaccines are designed to recognise multiple parts of the spike protein, which makes it unlikely a single mutation could be enough to prevent them from being effective.
However, he warned last week that current vaccines may not be as effective in protecting against the new and more contagious strains.
Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, a US-based epidemiologist and adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said while vaccine releases worldwide have been “the most positive news in this pandemic”, the new COVID-19 variants create new challenges.
He told Al Jazeera that mass vaccination programmes are critical, and that even if the virus mutates further, “we will eventually be able to get this under control”.
“The question is the final mile of eradication,” Feigl-Ding said. “It takes a lot of work and focus, control and discipline for countries and the world to eradicate it.”
Meanwhile, concerns are also mounting in Europe about delayed shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, with governments saying the supply issues were costing critical time during the early stages of the roll out to care homes and hospital staff.
The European Union on Tuesday warned pharmaceutical giants that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule, a day after the bloc threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this month that prospects for equitable distribution are at “serious risk” as the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme aims to start distributing inoculations to developing nations in February.
He said a “me-first approach” to distribution places the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities at risk and “will only prolong the pandemic”.