Global rise in COVID-19 cases is 'tip of the iceberg,' WHO warns

After more than a month of decline, COVID-19 cases started to increase around the world last week, the World Health Organization said. It said the rise was largely driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the BA.2 subvariant and the lifting of public health and social measures.

Omicron variant, lifting of public health measures driving COVID-19 uptick worldwide

Man in glasses in front of World Health Organization background.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a new press conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Dec. 20, 2021. After more than a month of decline, COVID-19 cases have started to increase around the world last week, WHO said. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/The Associated Press)

Figures showing a global rise in COVID-19 cases could herald a much bigger problem as some countries also report a drop in testing rates, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, warning nations to remain vigilant against the virus.

After more than a month of decline, COVID-19 cases started to increase around the world last week, WHO said, with lockdowns in Asia and China's Jilin province battling to contain an outbreak.

A combination of factors was causing the increases, including the highly transmissible Omicron variant and its BA.2 subvariant, as well as the lifting of public health and social measures, according to WHO.

"These increases are occurring despite reductions in testing in some countries, which means the cases we're seeing are just the tip of the iceberg," WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

Low vaccination rates in some countries, driven partly by a "huge amount of misinformation" also explained the rise, WHO officials said.

Global cases on the rise

New infections jumped by eight per cent globally compared to the previous week, with 11 million new cases and just over 43,000 new deaths reported from March 7-13. It is the first rise since the end of January.

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The biggest jump was in WHO's Western Pacific region, which includes South Korea and China, where cases rose by 25 per cent and deaths by 27 per cent. 

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Africa also saw a 12 per cent rise in new cases and 14 per cent rise in deaths, and in Europe, there was a two per cent rise in cases but no jump in deaths.

Other regions reported declining cases, including the eastern Mediterranean region, although this area saw a 38 per cent rise in deaths linked to a previous spike in infections.

A number of experts have raised concerns that Europe is facing another coronavirus wave, with cases rising since the beginning of March in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove said at the briefing that BA.2 appears to be the most transmissible variant so far.

However, there are no signs that it causes more severe disease, and no evidence that any other new variants are driving the rise in cases.

U.S. could soon see new wave, experts warn

The picture in Europe is also not universal. Denmark, for example, saw a brief peak in cases in the first half of February, driven by BA.2, which quickly subsided.

But experts have begun to warn that the United States could soon experience a similar wave to that seen in Europe, potentially driven by BA.2, the lifting of restrictions and possible waning of immunity from vaccines given several months ago.

"I agree with the easing of restrictions, because you can't think of it as an emergency after two years," said Antonella Viola, professor of immunology at Italy's University of Padua.

"We just have to avoid thinking that COVID is no longer there. And therefore maintain the strictly necessary measures, which are essentially the continuous monitoring and tracking of cases, and the maintenance of the obligation to wear a mask in closed or very crowded places."