A month ago, the pandemic was particularly bleak. More than 750,000 cases of coronavirus have been recorded worldwide in a single day. Infections have jumped across the United States. New variants identified in Brazil, Great Britain and South Africa threatened the rest of the world.
But the past month has brought a surprisingly rapid, albeit partial, turnaround. New cases have halved at their peak globally, largely thanks to steady improvements in some of the same places that have weathered devastating epidemics this winter.
Cases are an imperfect measure and uneven records and tests hide scope epidemics, especially in parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. But fewer patients are presenting to hospitals in many countries with the highest infection rates, giving experts confidence the drop is real.
The lull of many of the world’s worst epidemics creates a crucial opportunity to keep the virus on the decline as vaccinations begin to take effect. Experts say vaccines have done little to slow most outbreaks so far, but a small group of countries, mainly the rich, plan to vaccinate vulnerable groups by spring.
With the positive signs come a number of caveats and risks.
Many countries are still struggling. Brazil has a serious resurgence facing a new variant discovered in the country. Hospitalizations in Spain are higher than they have ever been, although official figures show a drop in new cases. And in a number of European countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia – the infection rate is worsening.
More contagious variants – or loopholes in social distancing and other control measures – could still lead to new spikes in infections. A variant first identified in Britain is spread quickly in the United States, and he’s been involved in outbreaks in Ireland, Portugal, and Jordan.
And while most countries have seen a drop in cases over the past month, the overall overall reduction has been largely attributable to just six countries with huge epidemics.