A month ago, the pandemic looked particularly bleak. More than 750,000 cases of coronavirus were counted worldwide in one day. Infections have spread throughout the United States. New versions identified in Brazil, Britain and South Africa have threatened the rest of the world.
But the past month has brought a surprisingly quick, albeit partial, turnaround. New cases have declined at half their peak globally, largely driven by continuous improvements in some of the same places that have weathered devastating epidemics this winter.
The cases are an imperfect measure, and uneven records and testing obscure the extent of the outbreak, especially in parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. But fewer patients appear in hospitals in many countries with the highest rates of infection, giving experts the certainty that the decline is real.
The lull in many of the world’s worst epidemics creates a critical opportunity for the virus to recede as vaccinations take effect. Experts believe vaccines have not slowed most epidemics a bit so far, but a small group of countries, primarily rich ones, plan to vaccinate vulnerable groups by spring.
Positive signs come with a number of warnings and risks.
Many countries are still struggling. Brazil has been seriously reborn because of a new variant discovered in the country. Hospitalizations in Spain are higher than ever before, although official totals show a drop in new cases. And in many European countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia – the infection rate is deteriorating.
More contagious variants – or failures in social exclusion and other control measures – could still bring new jumps in infections. The variant, first identified in Britain, is spreading rapidly in the United States, and is implied in jumps in Ireland, Portugal and Jordan.
And while most countries have seen a drop in cases over the past month, the overall global decline has been largely driven by just six countries with huge epidemics.