New US President Joe Biden has warned the worst of the pandemic is still to come, as the number of American coronavirus deaths surpassed the country’s troop fatalities in World War II.
Coronavirus cases have surged past 96 million worldwide, fuelled by the emergence of new variants including one that was first detected in Britain and has now spread to more than 60 nations, the World Health Organization said.
The United States remains the worst-hit country, with around a fifth of the two million global Covid-19 deaths, and Mr Biden has made the fight against the pandemic his administration’s top priority.
“We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” Mr Biden said at his inauguration, where those in attendance wore face masks and social distancing was enforced.
A Johns Hopkins University tracker on Wednesday showed that 405,400 people have died from the disease, more than the 405,399 total US combat and non-combat deaths in WWII.
Among the Biden administration’s targets is to inoculate 100 million Americans in 100 days, hoping to revive a vaccine rollout that had floundered in the last weeks of the Trump presidency.
Amazon yesterday offered its vast logistics infrastructure to help with that effort.
Mr Biden’s point-man for fighting the pandemic, Jeff Zients, said the US would also rejoin the WHO, reversing his predecessor’s decision.
He added that top US expert Dr Anthony Fauci would lead a delegation to the WHO executive board meeting today.
The announcement came as the WHO confirmed that the virus variant first detected in Britain had spread to more than 60 countries, while one that emerged in South Africa has made it to 23.
The South African variant is more contagious than earlier ones, experts have warned.
Both have tempered optimism that mass vaccination will help to end the unpopular restrictions such as shutdowns that have wrecked economies around the world.
There was some good news, however, with early results from two studies on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showing it is effective against the British variant, which is fuelling a surge that has overwhelmed UK hospitals.
“When you go into a hospital… in some cases it looks like a war zone,” the British government’s chief scientist, Patrick Vallance said.
The WHO co-led Covax facility, a globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort, has struck agreements with five manufacturers for two billion vaccine doses.
The urgency to be vaccinated was not being felt everywhere, however.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan plans to vaccinate its entire population, but not until after 13 March because the period before has been deemed “inauspicious”.
The shots will start after that, the prime minister’s office said, adding that it was “important we roll out the nationwide vaccination on an auspicious date.”
China plans to impose strict Covid testing requirements during the Lunar New Year holiday season, when tens of millions of people are expected to travel, as it battles the worst wave of new infections since March 2020.
The commercial hub of Shanghai reported its first locally transmitted cases in two months, underscoring the growing risk of the virus spreading elsewhere.
Millions of people in the province of Hebei surrounding Beijing and the northeastern provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang have been put into lockdown in recent weeks.
Authorities are asking people to stay home during the February holiday season in their effort to prevent another debilitating outbreak.
New curbs are also being adopted by local governments in areas that have not yet suffered major outbreaks, including one southwestern city that has barred entry to overseas foreigners.
A total of 144 new cases were reported yesterday, the National Health Commission said, matching the total reported on 14 January and marking the highest number of daily infections since 1 March last year.
In a notice posted online, the NHC said people returning to rural areas from other provinces over the Lunar New Year period would have to produce a negative Covid-19 test taken within seven days.