The global tally of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 topped 200 million on Thursday, reaching a milestone that the World Health Organization had predicted just a day ago would come by next week in the latest sign of just how far and fast the virus has spread.
The official death toll, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, stands at 4.26 million, although the WHO and other agencies have said the actual numbers are likely much higher given shortages of testing in some places and discrepancies in how countries record their numbers.
With the highly transmissible delta variant rapidly infecting especially unvaccinated people, efforts to persuade vaccine resisters to get their shots and to get vaccine supply to underserved countries have become more urgent. That’s why the WHO on Wednesday called for a moratorium on boosters until poorer countries have got access to first doses.
The U.S., France and Germany appear to have rejected that plea. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that was it was a “false choice,” arguing that the U.S. can both offer boosters to vulnerable people and continue to donate vaccines to others.
France and Germany both announced plans to offer boosters to their elderly and immunocompromised starting in September, Reuters reported. The WHO has repeatedly called for greater vaccine equity and has warned that allowing large parts of the world to remain unvaccinated while wealthier countries hog supply will allow the virus to continue to find hosts and create new variants, some of which may prove vaccine-resistant.
“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the delta variant,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it.”
The Biden administration is gearing up to make it a requirement for nearly all foreign visitors to the U.S. to be vaccinated, a White House official said Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. The requirement would come as part of the administration’s phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens. No timeline has been determined, as interagency working groups study how and when to safely move toward resuming normal travel.
But thanks to delta, now the dominant strain in the U.S., cases are rising in all 50 states, especially among the millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated. A New York Times tracker shows the seven-day average of cases at 96,000, up 131% from two weeks ago, and more than seven times higher than at the beginning of July.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical adviser, warned Wednesday that the numbers could double to 200,000 cases a day in the coming weeks and the country could be “in trouble” by the fall.
“What we’re seeing, because of this increase in transmissibility, and because we have about 93 million people in this country who are eligible to get vaccinated who don’t get vaccinated — that you have a significant pool of vulnerable people,” Fauci told McClatchy in an interview.
The peak day for new cases was Jan. 7, when 295,880 were recorded. By June 14, that number had fallen to 8,069, before starting to climb again.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker has barely budged in recent weeks with just 49.8% of the total population fully vaccinated. That means they have had two shots of the vaccines developed by Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.07% with German partner BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -0.61% or Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +1.54% , or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ -0.36% one-dose vaccine, the only three that are authorized in the U.S. so far.
Among adults 18 and older, just 60.7% are fully vaccinated, while 70.2% have received at least one shot. Fauci said he’s hoping the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will get full FDA approval in the coming weeks, at which point they can be mandated.
“If we don’t crush the outbreak to the point of getting the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, then what will happen is the virus will continue to smolder through the fall into the winter, giving it ample chance to get a variant, which, quite frankly, we’re very lucky that the vaccines that we have now do very well against the variants — particularly against severe illness,” Fauci told McClatchy. “We’re very fortunate that that’s the case. There could be a variant that’s lingering out there that can push aside delta.”
Moderna said Thursday its vaccine is still 93% effective six months after the second dose. This is different from what Pfizer Inc. said last week about its COVID-19 shot, which is that immunity can wane to 83.7 % four to six months after getting the second shot. Both vaccines are two-dose mRNA vaccines that had efficacy rates of about 95% in clinical trials.
In other COVID news, Australia’s second biggest city, Melbourne, is entering a sixth lockdown as it struggles to contain an outbreak, ABC News reported. Melbourne joins the biggest city, Sydney, where soldiers are patrolling the streets to enforce a lockdown.
In China, Beijing is canceling all large-scale events for the rest of August, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing state media. China has been battling a series of COVID-19 outbreaks caused by the variant since mid-July, with new cases numbering 62 nationwide on Wednesday, according to the country’s National Health Commission. The events were canceled after authorities confirmed three cases of locally transmitted COVID Wednesday caused by the delta variant.
In New York City, the annual car show has been canceled because of delta, and country-music singer Garth Brooks is reconsidering whether to continue a stadium tour this year.
Meanwhile, in South Dakota, there are growing fears that COVID-19 infections will be unleashed among the 700,000 people expected to show up at the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, as the AP reported. Last year’s event went ahead despite those same concerns with 460,000 attending and creating a “superspreader” event.
From the archives (September 2020): Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota in August linked to more than 250,000 coronavirus cases, study finds
“The rally is a behemoth, and you cannot stop it,” said Carol Fellner, a local who worried that this year’s event would cause a fresh outbreak of cases. “I feel absolutely powerless.”
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has given the rally her blessing, as she did in 2020. Noem has mostly taken a hands-off approach to the pandemic, and will appear in a charity ride.