The world has hit a new record number of COVID-19 cases in a single week, according to one tally, with daily infections also reaching new highs in the United States, Australia and several European countries amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
More than 935,000 cases on average have been detected each day between December 22 and 28, according to the tally published by the AFP news agency on Wednesday. In total, 6.51 million coronavirus cases have been reported worldwide in the past week.
The latest figures, the highest since cases were first recorded at the end of 2019, are based on the numbers provided daily by the health authorities in each country.
The coronavirus is wreaking havoc in many parts of the world as it mutates, forcing governments to rethink quarantine and test rules.
Although some studies have suggested the Omicron variant is less deadly than some previous strains, the huge numbers of people testing positive mean that hospitals in some countries might soon be overwhelmed, while businesses might struggle to carry on operating because of workers having to quarantine.
“Delta and Omicron are now twin threats driving up cases to record numbers, leading to spikes in hospitalisation and deaths,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing on Wednesday.
“I am highly concerned that Omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.”
Several countries that registered record numbers of new cases on Tuesday broke the records again the following day.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran told legislators on Wednesday France was seeing a “dizzying” rise in cases, with 208,000 reported in the space of 24 hours – a national and European record.
Britain reported 183,037 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a new record with a jump of more than 50,000 over the previous highest figure registered just a day earlier, government statistics showed.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 90 percent of the patients ending up in intensive care had not received booster vaccine dose, which medics say is the best protection against the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Italy reported another fresh record daily tally of COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, with new cases hitting 98,030 against 78,313 a day earlier, the health ministry said.
The average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the US hit a record 258,312 over the past seven days, according to a Reuters news agency tally on Wednesday. The previous peak was 250,141 cases, registered in early January this year.
Despite the surge in coronavirus infections, deaths and hospitalisations are comparatively low, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.
While the current seven-day daily average of cases is about 240,400 per day, up 60 percent over the previous week, the hospitalisation rate for the same period is up just 14 percent to about 9,000 per day over the same period. Deaths were down about 7 percent to 1,100 per day, Walensky added.
Meanwhile, new daily infections in Australia on Wednesday spiked to nearly 18,300, eclipsing the previous pandemic high of approximately 11,300 hit a day earlier.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country needed “a gear change” to manage overburdened laboratories, with long walk-in and drive-in queues reported in a number of states.
Testing bottlenecks have also grown in European nations, including in Spain where demand for free COVID-19 testing kits provided by Madrid’s regional government far outstripped supply on Tuesday, with long queues forming outside pharmacies.
A number of governments were also increasingly worried by the huge numbers of people being forced into self-isolation because they had been in contact with a COVID-19 patient.
“We just can’t have everybody just being taken out of circulation because they just happen to be at a particular place at a particular time,” Australia’s Morrison told reporters.
While Italy and Spain relaxed some isolation rules, China showed no easing in its policy of zero-tolerance to outbreaks, keeping 13 million people in the city of Xi’an under rigid lockdown for a seventh day as new COVID-19 infections persisted, with 151 cases reported on Tuesday.
Many countries are still grappling with the earlier Delta variant, including Poland, which reported 794 COVID-19-related deaths on Wednesday – the highest number in the fourth wave of the pandemic.
Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska said more than 75 percent of those who died were unvaccinated.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, infections have reduced over the past few days.
But in other parts of Africa, infection rates continue to surge, according to Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
“We’ve seen an increase in infection rates in dozens of African countries,” Soi said.
While the government does not differentiate between the different variants, it is difficult to know how many infections are caused by the Omicron variant at this time, she added.
Early data from the UK, South Africa and Denmark suggests there is a reduced risk of being admitted to hospital for the Omicron compared with the Delta variant, the WHO said in its latest epidemiological report released overnight.
However, the report said further data was needed to understand how the severity of illness may be affected by vaccination and, or, prior infection.
The surge in cases is coinciding with the New Year holidays, normally a period of parties and travel. Some countries, such as Italy, have cancelled public celebrations, while authorities in Japan urged residents to keep end-of-year gatherings small.