Global Covid-19 deaths reach 500,000 as pandemic gains momentum

Medical workers care for a Covid-19 patient at the Brooklyn Hospital Centre in New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Deaths from the coronavirus worldwide topped 500,000 and infections surged past 10 million, two chilling reminders that the deadliest pandemic of the modern era is stronger than ever.

The infection milestone is a rebuff to health experts and global leaders - including United States President Donald Trump - who had hoped early in the pandemic that the virus would fade away with the summer heat. Instead, infections are multiplying faster than ever.

It took four months after the pathogen first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan to reach one million infections. The spread of the coronavirus has steadily accelerated, compressing the time frame to a million additional cases every week now.

The latest milestone may serve only as a relative marker, as the true number is likely to be higher, given the difficulty of tracking infections.

The daily official count reached 150,000 cases in mid-June, prompting World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to warn that the pandemic has entered "a new and dangerous phase".

The death toll is equally sobering - at more than 500,000 - and some health officials predict a million fatalities may not be far off.

"We haven't seen the end of Covid-19, and we haven't seen the full scope of it yet, either," said Prof Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. "This will be as dangerous as the Spanish flu in many ways," he said, referring to the 1918 pandemic that infected an estimated 500 million people.

"It's a startling number," Dr Richard Riggs, chief medical officer of Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, said of the 10 million milestone. "It seems like it's going to continue for quite some time."

While efforts to contain the virus have been successful in some areas, using physical distancing and lockdowns, it's still not clear whether information gained during the past six months is significantly reducing complications and deaths rates, he said.

Recent breakthroughs, including treatment with Gilead Sciences' remdesivir and the inexpensive steroid dexamethasone, may make a difference.

"I'm hopeful we have learned more about how to care for these folks," he said.

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The global epicentre of the coronavirus is continuing to shift. First it was China, then Europe, and now developing countries with weaker healthcare systems like Brazil and India are reeling.

Since late March, the US has had the most cases globally and is still adding infections at a record daily pace as states like Texas, Arizona and Florida are overwhelmed, forced to reverse plans to open their economies.

Governments are increasingly accepting there may be no quick return to life before the pandemic, as economies have been battered by prevention measures that restricted people's movements and damped consumption.

"You will see the long impact of Covid-19 above and beyond the mortality we are counting right now," said Prof Mokdad. "Already the impact on our economies means that one year from now there will be less aid to poor countries, less money to buy vaccines or HIV medicines."


People are still trying to get on with interrupted lives. But more lockdowns and social distancing measures may not be looming.

"Going back into a lockdown is a terrible option, but we do need to be flexible," said Dr Caroline Buckee, associate director of the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "The question for policy makers is how much of a rise are they willing to tolerate."

A recent outbreak in Beijing is a reminder that even places that had shown success in controlling the virus can't tame it indefinitely. The best hope lies in the development of a vaccine, which is unlikely to be ready this year despite a global race to come up with an effective shot.

In the early stages of the outbreak, officials in the northern hemisphere pointed to the potential that the virus would go away in the summer, with people outside and not in close quarters. Those hopes have been dashed.

"It doesn't look like there's any significant impact right now from the weather," Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, said this month. He had earlier noted that hot weather tends to slow lung infections.

The situation may worsen when autumn comes. The US and other northern countries will need to prepare for a flu season that will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, adding more stress on already stretched healthcare systems.

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