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WHO, Fauci urge continued COVID-19 vigilance as infections decline

By
Don Jacobson
Volunteer Nick Tsoubanos wears a mask to protect against COVID-19 while flipping Pita bread at the St. Louis County Greekfest Curbside Festival in Town and Country, Mo., on Friday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Volunteer Nick Tsoubanos wears a mask to protect against COVID-19 while flipping Pita bread at the St. Louis County Greekfest Curbside Festival in Town and Country, Mo., on Friday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

May 31 (UPI) -- Health leaders at the World Health Organization and in the United States warned Monday that despite declining infection rates, it's still too soon to let up in the fight against COVID-19.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking at the World Health Assembly, cautioned that it would be a "monumental error" to presume the danger of COVID-19 has passed, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the world can't "declare victory prematurely."

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In his closing comments to the WHO's annual weeklong high-level assembly, Tedros said that while the United Nations agency is "very encouraged that cases and deaths are continuing to decline globally," it would be "a monumental error for any country to think the danger has passed."

Rather, he urged that all member nations stay alert to the continuing dangers of emerging viral variants and support a new pandemic preparedness treaty, which would improve early warnings on potential global health threats, promote stockpiling and production of pandemic supplies, and "allow for equitable access to vaccines, tests and treatments."

All nations, Tedros said, "can only truly keep their own people safe if they are accountable to each other at the global level," especially after COVID-19 exposed a "lack of sharing" of "data, information, pathogens, technologies and resources."

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As of Sunday, there have been 169.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 3.5 million deaths, the WHO reported. More than 1.54 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.

In a bid to better track variants, the agency on Monday also announced it has assigned new, simple labels for the key coronavirus variants using letters of the Greek alphabet.

For example, the B.1.1.7 variant initially identified in Britain will now be labeled as "Alpha," while the one first identified in South Africa will be called "Beta."

The scientific names of the variants are complicated and have resulted in confusion, agency officials said in a statement.

"As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory," they said. "To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels."

Fauci on Monday told The Guardian that despite new U.S. cases falling to the lowest levels in 12 months, "We don't want to declare victory prematurely because we still have a ways to go.

"As long as there is some degree of activity throughout the world, there's always a danger of variants emerging and diminishing somewhat the effectiveness of our vaccines," he said.

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On Memorial Day in the United States, which marks the traditional start of the summer months, daily new cases had fallen to around 20,000 -- half of what they were at the start of the month -- as the number of U.S. vaccinations reached nearly 295 million.

About 63% of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Sunday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, Fauci urged that Americans must remain vigilant.

"We cannot abandon public health measures when you still have a degree of viral activity in the broad community in the United States," he said. "Although we're down to less than 30,000 infections per day that's still a lot of infections per day."

Elsewhere on Monday, a scientist advising the British government said the country is in the early stages of a "third wave" of coronavirus infections.

Ravi Gupta, a professor at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that while overall new cases are "relatively low" compared to earlier in the pandemic, the Indian variant -- now known as "Delta" -- has triggered "exponential growth" in Britain.

All waves of infections "start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave," Gupta said.

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This latest wave will take longer to materialize than previous ones because of the greater number of Britons who have been vaccinated, thus potentially creating "a false sense of security for some time, and that's our concern," he said.

In Brussels, the European Commission on Monday proposed that EU member states gradually ease their pandemic travel restrictions in time for the summer holiday season, especially for those holding digital "vaccine passports."

EU leaders said that starting Tuesday, they will roll out a new system allowing member states to issue a digital EU Digital COVID Certificate to residents who provide proof of their vaccination status, granting them freedom to travel.

They set a July 1 deadline for instituting the new system.

"Today, we are proposing that member states coordinate this gradual lifting of free movement restrictions, taking into account our new common tool: the EU Digital COVID Certificate," EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said in an issued statement.

"We now expect member states to make best use of this instrument and the recommendation to allow everyone to move freely and safely again."

In global hotspot India, officials on Monday reported the fewest new COVID-19 cases in 50 days.

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There were 152,000 additional cases for the day -- the lowest single-day count since early April -- the Indian Union Health Ministry reported.

Scenes from COVID-19 surge in India

Homeless and migrant laborers affected by the COVID-19 lockdown queue up to receive free cooked food distributed by Sikh volunteers in New Delhi, India, on May 18, 2021. Photo by Abhishek/UPI | License Photo

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