The World Health Organization warned Friday of a “new and dangerous phase” of the coronavirus pandemic with people tiring of lockdowns despite the disease’s accelerating spread.
The warning came as it emerged the virus was present in Italy in December, months before its first confirmed cases and about the same time as the disease was first reported in China.
The virus, which has now killed more than 454,000 people and infected 8.4 million people worldwide, is surging in the Americas and parts of Asia even as Europe starts to ease restrictive measures.
Lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of the disease have caused crippling economic damage, but the WHO said the pandemic still posed a major threat.
“The world is in a new and dangerous phase. Many people are understandably fed up with being at home … but the virus is still spreading fast,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference.
Italian researchers discovered genetic traces of SARS-CoV-2 — as the virus is officially known — in samples of waste water collected in Milan and Turin at the end of last year, and Bologna in January, the ISS institute said.
Italy’s first confirmed cases were not until February.
The results “help to understand the start of the circulation of the virus in Italy,” the ISS said.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the virus and the first in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown, in early March.
In a sign of the persisting risks, ISS, Italy’s top health agency, also urged caution after last week seeing “warning signs” of virus transmission following two outbreaks in Rome.
“In certain parts of the country, the circulation of the virus is still significant,” ISS said in its weekly report.
Many European countries followed Italy into lockdown, and most have only begun reopening this month after painful shutdowns that devastated their economies.
Facing the biggest recession in the EU’s history, leaders on Friday held a virtual summit on the European Commission’s proposal for a €750 billion ($840 billion) rescue fund.
Chinese authorities said studies of genome data, which it had shared with the WHO, suggest the new outbreak in Beijing “came from Europe”, but is different from what is currently spreading there.
“It is older than the virus currently circulating in Europe,” Zhang Yong of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.
He raised the possibility of the virus lurking in imported frozen food or in the wholesale market itself, resulting in similarities to older strains.
The United States still leads the world in the number of confirmed infections and deaths, with a recent surge in southern states, while the economy has also been hammered in a year when U.S. President Donald Trump seeks re-election.
However top U.S. expert Dr. Anthony Fauci offered hope as he said in an interview that he did not see America returning to a fresh lockdown.
He predicted it would instead focus on “trying to better control those areas of the country that seem to be having a surge of cases.”
Fauci said he was optimistic the world would soon have a vaccine to end the pandemic, calling early trial results “encouraging.”
‘Difficult Journey’ to Vaccine
With many nations easing restrictions but fearful of a second wave of infections, Ryan urged a gradual and scientific approach.
“Exiting lockdowns must be done carefully, in a step-wise manner, and must be driven by the data,” he said. “If don’t know where it is the chances are the virus will surprise you.”
A vaccine remains months off at best despite several trials, while scientists are still discovering more about the virus, its symptoms and the extent to which it may have spread before being identified.
Ryan said the resurgence of new clusters did not necessarily mean a second wave, while “second peaks” were also possible in one wave. The emergencies expert praised Germany, China and South Korea for their handling of the pandemic.
With trials underway around the world to find medicines and a vaccine for COVID-19, WHO officials warned that large-scale testing would be needed with side-effects carefully monitored.
“Although it is not impossible to find a vaccine … it’s going to be a very difficult journey,” Tedros said.