The world is still in ‘one big wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, with countries experiencing peaks and troughs of infection, a WHO expert has said.

While there has been speculation about a ‘second wave’ of infections this winter, WHO has cautioned that we should not think of COVID like the common cold or influenza, which follow seasonal variation. We are in a position to control it through social distancing and other infection control measures, although some countries appear to have been more successful at containing the virus than others.

It is difficult to compare different countries with certainty because of variation in testing regimes. However, graphs from the WHO show that confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to accelerate globally. On the 27th July, the WHO director general reported that the total number of cases had roughly doubled in the previous six weeks.

Regional differences exist, for example, cases in Europe have halved since a peak in April, but they are still running at around 16,000 a day with a weekly variation. Recent daily cases in the UK have varied between a low of 70 on 29 July and a high of 880 on 1 August.

The findings highlight the need to avoid complacency, remain vigilant, and continue to follow regional and national guidance.

Where did the story come from?

Several media outlets, including the Reuters news agency, reported comments by Dr Margaret Harris, an expert on the WHO coronavirus response team, who said in a press briefing: ‘We are in the first wave. It’s going to be one big wave. It’s going to go up and down a bit.’

What is the basis for the claim?

Disease monitoring by the WHO shows that confirmed cases of COVID-19 remain high around the world, with some continents and countries contributing more cases than others.

Up to the end of July, the Americas have the highest total number of confirmed cases at 9.7 million, followed by Europe at 3.5 million and South-East Asia at 2.2 million. By individual country, the US remains the highest at 4.6 million confirmed cases. Although cases declined from the end of April, they began to rise again sharply in the middle of June and are now much higher than at the earlier peak of infections. Currently, they are reporting around 50,000 new cases a day.

Infections in India have continued to rise steeply since mid-June, and they are also now reporting about 50,000 new cases a day, with relatively small daily variations.

Some countries, including New Zealand, have been very successful at containing community spread, with only a handful of cases since the end of April. However, even New Zealand has reported one to four new cases most days since the end of June.

Dr Harris said that people should not think about SARS-CoV-2 in terms of seasonal infections, like flu. She said the high rates of infection in the US this summer demonstrated that the virus does not disappear in the warmer months. However, she warned that countries may need to prepare for COVID-19 infections coinciding with flu and putting health services under greater strain in winter.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 3 August, Professor Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College London, agreed that the UK was still in the first wave of infection, with ‘ripples’ in different parts of the country as infection levels rise and fall.

 

What do trusted sources say?

The Emergency Committee of the WHO said in a statement that they ‘unanimously agreed that the pandemic still constitutes a public health emergency of international concern’. The statement warned: ‘The Committee highlighted the anticipated lengthy duration of this COVID-19 pandemic, noting the importance of sustained community, national, regional, and global response efforts.

The Committee encouraged all individuals, in particular young people, and communities to continue to play an active role in preventing and controlling transmission of COVID-19.’

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser

Citation

  1. World Health Organisation. WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard, 4 August 2020. https://covid19.who.int/ (Accessed 6 August 2020).

 

Reading list

  1. Statement on the fourth meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/01-08-2020-statement-on-the-fourth-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-coronavirus-disease-(covid-19) (Accessed 6 August 2020).