A month ago, the pandemic looked particularly bleak. More than 750,000 coronavirus cases were counted worldwide in a single day. Infections increased across the United States. New variants in Brazil, Great Britain and South Africa threatened the rest of the world.
But the past month brought a surprisingly quick, albeit partial, turnaround. New cases around the world have dropped to half their peak, largely due to steady improvements in some of the places where devastating outbreaks have occurred this winter.
Cases are an incomplete measure, and inconsistent recordings and testing hide the scale of outbreaks, particularly in parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. However, in many countries with the highest infection rates, fewer patients are showing up in hospitals, which gives experts confidence that the decline is real.
The lull in many of the world’s worst outbreaks presents a crucial opportunity to keep the virus on the decline once vaccinations take effect. Experts believe vaccines have done little to stem most outbreaks, but a small group of countries, especially wealthy ones, plan to vaccinate vulnerable groups by spring.
The positive signs come with a number of limitations and risks.
Many countries are still fighting. Brazil is experiencing a serious resurgence in the face of a new variant discovered in the country. Hospital stays in Spain are higher than ever, although official numbers show a decrease in new cases. In some European countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia – the infection rate is deteriorating.
More contagious variants – or mistakes in social distancing and other control measures – could still bring new spikes in infection. A variant, first identified in the UK, is spreading rapidly in the US and is associated with increases in Ireland, Portugal and Jordan.
While most countries saw declines over the past month, overall global reductions were mainly driven by just six countries with huge epidemics.