As virus threatens Southeast Asia, new variants continue to be a danger everywhere

After a devastating year, with wave after wave of coronavirus infections, cases and deaths are falling in many of the Western nations that were once among the hardest hit. But even as the virus recedes in wealthy nations with robust vaccination campaigns, it is pummeling India and threatens to swamp Southeast Asian countries that had until now largely fended it off.

The result is that, overall, new global cases are leveling off after rising steadily since March and peaking in late April. Still, the world is in danger as long as they remain at “an unacceptably high plateau,” the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Monday.

In Southeast Asia, Tedros noted that “cases and deaths are still increasing rapidly.” Cambodia and Thailand, which had controlled the virus throughout 2020, have recorded sharp increases in infections in recent days. Malaysia announced a new nationwide lockdown Monday, two days after recording its highest daily case total since January.

Scientists warn that if the virus is allowed to spread unchecked in parts of the world with lower vaccine coverage, dangerous variants will continue to evolve, threatening all countries.

“Globally, we are still in a perilous situation,” Tedros said.

About 772,000 new cases are reported on average each day globally, nearly half in India, where a virus variant, B.1.617, has been spreading.

The WHO deemed B.1.617 “a variant of concern” on Monday. Other variants of concern include B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain and now dominant in the United States, and P.1, originally detected in Brazil.

In the United States, Britain and parts of Western Europe where vaccines have been widely deployed, the virus is subsiding, and people are flocking back to restaurants and other attractions.

Vaccines could soon be available to even more Americans now that the Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for 12- to 15-year-olds.

Dr. Robert Schooley, chief of the infectious disease division at the University of California, San Diego, said that the global rate of cases “remains quite volatile.”

“We’re going to see a bit of a ‘whack-a-mole’ situation for some time to come as local and regional outbreaks flare up and burn out,” Schooley said.

This will continue to be the case, he said, as long as a substantial part of the global population remains unvaccinated.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease expert who is an assistant professor at George Mason University, said that Americans should not be lulled into thinking the virus is defeated, because “we have to see the crisis in India as a wake-up call for global vaccine equity. She added, “COVID-19 isn’t gone anywhere until it’s gone everywhere.”


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