WHO warns over virus immunity as global death toll tops 200,000

04:32 PM | 26 Apr, 2020
WHO warns over virus immunity as global death toll tops 200,000
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GENEVA – The World Health Organization warned on Saturday that recovery from coronavirus might not protect a person from reinfection as the global death toll from the pandemic surpassed 200,000.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world spent the second day of the Ramadan holy month out of mosques and avoiding large family meals to break the fast because of sequestration and social distancing policies.

And Australians and New Zealanders marked Anzac Day without the normal parades and public ceremonies to commemorate fallen soldiers. Instead, under social distancing policies, people held dawn vigils in front of their homes.

Even as governments from Sri Lanka to Belgium to the United States began moving in the direction of partial reopening, the COVID-19 pandemic still had nearly half of humanity under some form of lockdown or confinement.

Total cases around the world rose to 2.86 million and deaths mounted past the 200,000 mark, doubling since April 10.

Europe, the hardest-hit region, has recorded 122,171 coronavirus deaths.

The United States has seen the highest number of deaths for a single country with 53,070 fatalities, followed by Italy at 26,384, Spain 22,902, France 22,614 and the United Kingdom 20,319.

Reinfection warning

The world remained in wait as companies and governments raced to develop treatments and, further down the road, a vaccine for the virus, which first surfaced in China late last year.

The WHO warned on Saturday that people who test positive and survive infection cannot be certain they will not be hit again by the coronavirus.

The warning came as some governments study measures such as "immunity passports" for those who have recovered as one way to get people back to work after weeks of economic shutdown.

"There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection," the UN health body said in a statement.

It warned that such people may tend to ignore public health advice, such as continuing to wear facemasks, assuming they are not a danger to themselves or others.

That is a particular worry as testing becomes more widespread, especially testing for coronavirus antibodies, whose presence indicate a person had previously contracted the virus and recovered.

"If I've already had corona then I'm not infectious," said Berlin resident Lothar Kopp, hoping to test positive for antibodies as it could allow him to visit his elderly mother.

Germany has carried out tens of thousands of tests and other countries are also working on determining so-called levels of immunity.

Early stages

Despite Saturday's grim milestone in virus fatalities, the daily toll in Western countries appeared to be levelling off and even falling, a sign hopeful epidemiologists had been looking for. 

Likewise, new reported cases appear to have plateaued at about 80,000 a day.

But in many countries there were worries of a second surge after lockdown restrictions are eased, possibly also coinciding with a new flu season.

In hard-hit Iran, health officials Saturday raised fears of a "fresh outbreak" with another 76 fatalities declared, bringing the country's official death toll to 5,650.

Iran has steadily allowed the restarting of businesses that were closed to stop the virus spread. But Alireza Zali, a health coordinator for the capital, criticised "hasty reopenings" that could "create new waves of sickness in Tehran".

In the United States, the White House's top pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci said this week that the US will certainly have a coronavirus problem in the fall, which could be complicated by the return of the seasonal flu toward year-end.

At the beach

Even so, the pressure from broken economies and citizens frustrated by stay-at-home orders had areas pushing to open up.

The governor of the US state of Georgia rejected warnings from top disease experts and allowed businesses like hair dressers, nail salons and bowling alleys to reopen.

On Saturday many Georgians embraced the return to something resembling normalcy by flocking to the beach.

"It feels great -- like it's supposed to feel," mother and housewife Rachel Lilly, 39, told AFP, barely lifting her head from her watermelon-themed towel as she relaxed under a cloudless sky on Tybee Island.

"I'm not concerned" about catching coronavirus, "as long as it's not packed," she said.

"But if everyone does what we're doing, that's a problem." On Friday, Belgium's Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced a staggered plan for reopening businesses and schools in mid-May and restaurants beginning on June 8.

"The spread of COVID-19 has been slowed down, but the virus has not disappeared," she warned.

Italy, nearing the end of the world's longest active lockdown, announced plans Saturday to set price limits on face masks and ramp up antibody testing.

Italians are awaiting a decision this weekend about which restrictions will be lifted. They will probably be allowed to leave their homes freely for the first time since March 9 by early May.

In France, which will be on lockdown until May 11, residents have taken to praising health workers and protesting their frustrations with painted banners hung outside their windows.

"Thank you to the caregivers, shame on the leaders," read one banner hanging outside a building in a Paris suburb.