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Infection curve down at long last: Is the Covid-19 pandemic ebbing?

At a time when the world’s biggest vaccination campaign in history is underway with nearly 120 million doses delivered in 67 countries, a recession such as this may well mark the beginning of the end of a virus outbreak that has changed the world.
Commuters walk on a crowded railway platform as authorities permitted all members of the general public to travel in local trains, after a gap of about 320 days owing to the coronavirus pandemic, in Thane, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (PTI)
Updated on Feb 06, 2021 04:58 AM IST
ByJamie Mullick, New Delhi

The global onslaught of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has started receding for the first time ever, with daily new infections seeing a steady drop for nearly a month – something that has never happened in the 14 months of the pandemic’s run across the world.

At a time when the world’s biggest vaccination campaign in history is underway with nearly 120 million doses delivered in 67 countries, a recession such as this may well mark the beginning of the end of a virus outbreak that has changed the world.

At least 105 million people have been infected with Sars-CoV-2 across the world and nearly 2.3 million people have died since the end of 2019 – both likely underestimates according to experts.

The seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases across the world touched 745,837 on January 11, the highest ever witnessed for the disease. In the 24 days since, the trajectory has changed. This number (also referred to as the daily case trajectory) has dropped every single day and currently stands at 485,005 for the week ending Thursday – a drop of 35% from the peak. This has never happened for such a prolonged period in global cases. There was a week-long drop in infections between December 22 and 29, and that too caused most likely by delayed tests and counts on account of the holiday season.

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This has meant that the world’s doubling rate of total infections – the number of days it takes for the total number of infections to double – has seen a drastic improvement over the past month. On Thursday, it stood at 148 days, as against 83 days on January 11.

This massive turnaround in new infections is fuelled largely by a reversal in trajectory in regions which were so far the biggest Covid-19 hot spots – particularly the US and Europe – and are also regions that have seen the largest roll-out of vaccines so far.

In the US, which is the world’s worst-hit country (and by a huge margin) with 27 million cases and 467,000 deaths, the seven-day average of cases has dropped from a peak of 255,125 on January 4 to 129,894 in the last seven days – a fall of 49%. The US, which began its inoculation programme on December 14, has administered at least 35 million doses of Covid vaccine as of Wednesday – the most in the world, according to data maintained by Our World in Data.

This turnaround is even more evident in Europe.

In the UK and France, the daily case rate in the past week has been 21,246 and 20,568 respectively. At its peak, the UK was reporting 59,344 cases a day on average (for the week ending January 1), while France was reporting 56,378 a day for week ending October 31. This means both have seen a 64% drop from their peak case levels.

They are the countries that have been responsible for the fifth and sixth most infections, respectively. Till Thursday, the UK had administered 11 million vaccines doses, while France has given out 1.8 million doses.

Similarly, cases in Italy have dropped 67% from their early November peak, while in Germany infections are down 61% from the mid-December peak.

India’s turnaround has been by far the most prominent with an 87% drop from peak infection rate. But it has been happening for a far longer period (the only Indian wave peaked on September 16, 2020) to have greatly influenced the recent drop in global infections. When the world trajectory touched 745,837 on January 11, India was reporting just 17,479 daily cases – this means it was only contributing 2% to the world’s infections at the time.

To be sure, most of these nations (other than India) have seen two or three distinct waves of infections, so cases have dropped within all these countries before as well — for example, in the UK and France, cases dropped 93% and 97% from their first peaks before rising again, ultimately hitting new records.

The situation across the world now is very different. As many as 67 nations have kicked off vaccination drives of varying intensity, and, experts say the Western world, in particular, may just be months away from inoculating enough people to actually manage to bring the infections under control for good.

But a new threat has been looming on the horizon: variants of the virus have taken hold in multiple countries, making the Sars-CoV-2 not only spread more rapidly (consequently leading to a higher disease burden) but also give it the capability to resist vaccines (and immunity from past infections) at least in some manner. Averting the next wave will depend on how well the world can scale up the vaccination drive while keeping the virus at bay.

Experts said that while numbers are going down, virus mutations remain a big threat.

“While any significant drop in infections is a good sign, it is still too early to rule out a yet another resurgence because of a mutation. Two new variants of the virus – from the UK and South Africa – have both caused surges recently. Already the South African variant is appearing to show some resistance to vaccines. We haven’t seen that variant in India yet, but with more than 10 million domestic confirmed cases, we may not need an imported variant at all,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, director of Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.

“It’s very hard to predict if we will see resurgence of cases. People need to avoid falling in the trap of getting lax about the disease because of case numbers or seroprevalence numbers. The UK is an example of how dynamics regarding the disease can flip quickly.”

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