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Global death toll passes 3m as pandemic ‘grows at an alarming rate’

Robin McKie Science Editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

A grim Covid-19 milestone was passed on Saturday when it was revealed that the global death toll from the disease had passed three million.

The news was described as “chilling” by Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, who warned that the true number of deaths was probably much higher. “Worryingly, this pandemic is still growing at an alarming rate,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands are dying every day.”

According to the Covid-19 dashboard, run by Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 140 million cases of the disease since the pandemic began last year with the official death toll reaching 3,001,068 yesterday morning. The worst affected country was the US with more than 31 million cases and more than 560,000 deaths.

India and Brazil have also fared badly with the former recording more than 14 million cases and 175,000 deaths, while the latter has suffered just under 14 million cases and almost 370,000 deaths. Britain, which has also been hit heavily by the disease, has had more than four million cases and has a death toll that currently stands at more than 127,000.

Only when we have tools to detect, treat and prevent Covid-19 everywhere will we be able to stop this pandemic and this senseless, tragic loss of life,” added Farrar, who said that a small number of rich countries had key roles to play in bringing the pandemic to a halt.

Five nations chart

“The UK, the US and other wealthy nations are in a position where they can and should set out a timetable immediately for sharing vaccine doses with the rest of the world, alongside their national rollouts. There can be no more delays.”

In the UK it was revealed that on Friday there were 35 deaths, 2,206 new cases, 120,000 first vaccinations administered and 485,000 second vaccinations administered.

The impact of Britain’s lengthy lockdown and the fast rollout of vaccines across the country over the past four months has helped the UK to do relatively well recently in terms of declining numbers of deaths and hospitalisations. “I think in our own little world in the UK we’re actually doing pretty well now,” said Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford.

In November Bell predicted on BBC News that Britain would have a near- normal spring this year. “I stand by that,” he told the Observer last week. “We are going to have a spring and a summer that will look pretty close to usual.” However, there were still issues to worry about, he added. “We have this challenge of getting the world vaccinated and that is not going to happen this summer.

“That means the ongoing creation of some pretty interesting variants will continue round the world and any one of those could turn out to be much more pathogenic or much more infectious than existing strains. We are walking on a tight ridge with all this going on around us.”

Shoppers return to York as lockdown restrictions are eased.
Shoppers return to York as lockdown restrictions are eased. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

On the other hand, there will soon be a broad selection of vaccines available in the UK, and if used in combination with each other, these could provide deeper and broader protection against new variants, Bell added.

“I think you can expect a little uptick in numbers of cases in the next few weeks because schools are back and lockdown is coming to an end. However, I would really hope that given the level of vaccination that has taken place – particularly for the vulnerable and elderly – that we will see less in the way of hospital admissions and deaths which are already at a very low level. But if those numbers start to go up, we could have something to worry about.”

Recent reports have also suggested plans are being prepared to give Covid jabs to the under-18s in the UK once vaccine trials on youngsters in the US have been completed. These would help limit the spread of the Covid virus and help to build some kind of herd immunity among the population in Britain.

England cases by age

However, Saul Faust, professor of paediatric immunology at Southampton University, told the Observer last week that he thought it was doubtful that a rollout of vaccines for the under-18s would take place this year.

“Although we may soon have the clinical data from US vaccine trials of under-18s, it is unlikely that children and young people will become the highest priority for immunisation – although that could change if circumstances in this country alter,” he said.

“For example, if a new variant affecting younger people begins to sweep schools, there would be a good moral argument for immunising young people for their own benefit to prevent school closures,” added Faust.

“Such a move is only likely to be approved if there was enough vaccine in the country, and with the AstraZeneca vaccine being restricted at present and with the prospect that it may be necessary to give older people a booster jab in autumn, it would seem unlikely that we will be immunising young people in the UK before 2022, when vaccine supply becomes easier.”