GENEVA, Switzerland — The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Monday its “best estimates” indicate that roughly 1 in 10 people worldwide may have been infected by the coronavirus — more than 20 times the number of confirmed cases — and warned of a difficult period ahead.
Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking to a special session of the WHO’s 34-member executive board focusing on COVID-19, said the figures vary from urban to rural, and between different groups, but that ultimately it means “the vast majority of the world remains at risk.” He said the pandemic would continue to evolve, but that tools exist to suppress transmission and save lives.
“Many deaths have been averted and many more lives can be protected," Ryan said. He was flanked by his boss, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who minutes earlier led a moment of silence to honor victims as well as round of applause for the health workers who have strived to save them.
Ryan said southeast Asia faced a surge in cases, Europe and the eastern Mediterranean were seeing an increase in deaths, while the situations in Africa and the Western Pacific were “rather more positive.”
"Our current best estimates tell us that about 10 percent of the global population may have been infected by this virus,” Ryan told attendees from member governments who make up the executive board and provide much of its funding.
The estimate — which would amount to more than 760 million people based on a current world population of about 7.6 billion — far outstrips the number of confirmed cases as tallied by both WHO and Johns Hopkins University, now more than 35 million worldwide.
Experts have long said that the number of confirmed cases greatly underestimates the true figure.
The comments came during a special session of the executive board to consider the follow-up to its previous meeting, in May, that passed a resolution to look into the world's — and WHO's — response to the pandemic. Ryan warned that the world was "now heading into a difficult period. The disease continues to spread. It is on the rise in many parts of the world.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The United States has more than 7.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University. Just after 7:45 a.m. EDT Monday, the U.S. had more than 209,000 deaths from the virus.