GENEVA — The coronavirus pandemic is now in a “new and dangerous phase,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, with the disease accelerating at the same time as people tire of lockdowns.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged nations and citizens to remain extremely vigilant, as the number of cases reported to the UN health agency hit a new peak.
“The pandemic is accelerating. More than 150,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported to WHO yesterday—the most in a single day so far,” Tedros told an online press conference.
He said almost half of those cases were reported from the Americas, with large numbers also being reported from South Asia and the Middle East.
“The world is in a new and dangerous phase. Many people are understandably fed up with being at home. Countries are understandably eager to open up their societies and economies,” he said.
“But the virus is still spreading fast, it’s still deadly and most people are still susceptible,” he said, with the most vulnerable set to suffer the worst.
The new coronavirus has killed at least 454,000 people and infected more than 8.5 million since the outbreak began in China late last year, according to a tally from official sources compiled by Agence France Presse.
Italy’s top health agency on Friday urged caution after last week seeing “warning signs” of new coronavirus transmission, especially in Rome.
WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said countries needed to be on alert for second waves of infection—and second peaks within the first wave if it is not properly suppressed.
“You may have a second peak within your first wave, and then you may have a second wave: it’s not either or,” the Irish epidemiologist said.
While increased numbers of confirmed cases could be due to improved testing, he said unexpected rising hospitalization and death figures were a better indicator of a resurgence.
“Exiting lockdowns must be done carefully,” he said. “If you don’t know where the virus is, the chances are that the virus will surprise you.”
Ryan said countries needed to be more agile and react quickly and precisely to new clusters, and he praised the intensity of investigations going on in Beijing, which is battling a new outbreak.
“When you see a cluster, you have to jump on the cluster … if we want to avoid the blunt instrument of lockdown,” he said.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) identified at least 223 areas with clustering of cases.
In Cebu City, which was again put on strict lockdown last Monday, clustering of cases from June 5 to 18 was most notable in Barangay Lahug where 59 cases were recorded.
Barangays Pardo and Sambag II each reported 42 new cases during the same period, while Labangon had 39.
The DOH sent a team of epidemiologists to Cebu to look into what was causing the upsurge in the city, which had been praised by the national government for its aggressive testing and contact tracing.
The city of around one million had the most number of active cases in the country with 3,102, as of Friday. Quezon City was a far second with 1,391, followed by Manila with 1,036.
Ryan said a second peak would depend “on how good, how strong and how effective the control” of the disease is at the moment.
“If you start to experience a second peak, then the chances are that the disease is spreading in a way that you have not got full control over that,” he added.
On March 31, DOH reported the highest single-day increase in new cases with 538 infections. Even with the lockdown, the government was unable to dramatically bring down the number, which averaged around 220 daily in April and May.
By May 28, a new high of 539 was recorded. A day later, there was a spike of 1,046 cases, which the DOH attributed to its shift to the automated COVID-Kaya system that expedited its validation process.
Since May 30 though, the new cases averaged 563 daily, driven largely by infections in Central Visayas.
According to Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, the public should not be surprised if there was a resurgence.
“Because we know that a large proportion of the population remains susceptible, which means if the virus has an opportunity to enter into the population again — and if we don’t have physical distancing, handwashing and all of the other measures in place to be able to detect, isolate, care and contact trace — it will take off,” Kerkhove said.
Ryan warned that if hospitalizations and deaths increase at the same time as the cases, that situation was no longer driven by a country’s improved testing capacity.
“It’s important to look at increased numbers, to examine where those increased numbers are happening, who are those increased numbers happening to, can it be explained by increased testing, is the health system starting to come under pressure? And if it is, you need to act, to protect the health system and to suppress infection,” Ryan said.
Beijing’s fresh coronavirus outbreak emerged at a wholesale market, with the total number of infections since last week reaching 183.
Kerkhove said virus sequences from the new outbreak were already available for study.
“As we understand it, the virus is closely related to the European strain,” she said.
Ryan explained that strains were on the move around the world, saying “many of the viruses that circulated in New York were of European origin,” while “Japan has reimported cases from Europe.”
He said it was “reassuring” that the Beijing outbreak looked like human-to-human transmission, squashing the hypothesis that the virus had jumped the species barrier again from animals.
—Reports from AFP and Jovic Yee