FILE - This photo taken March 30, 2021, shows Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape (R) preparing to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
FILE - This photo taken March 30, 2021, shows Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape (R) preparing to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

The World Health Organization said Friday that COVID-19 cases are increasing globally at a worrying rate, with the number of new cases doubling each week, a pace approaching the highest rate of infection since the pandemic began.

The WHO said Friday there were 541,960 new cases in the past week. On February 22 -- the week new cases began to tick up after six weeks of decline – 194,469 new cases were reported.  

At a virtual briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries that had avoided widespread infections are now seeing steep increases.  

He pointed to Papua New Guinea, which, until the beginning of this year, had reported less than 900 cases and only nine deaths. The nation has now reported more than 9,300 cases and 82 deaths.  

FILE - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, speaks in Geneva, Jan. 21, 2021.

Tedros said that while that is a small number relative to other countries, the dramatic rate of new infections has the WHO very concerned about the potential for a larger epidemic in Papua New Guinea. He said the WHO began a vaccine rollout in the nation late last month and three emergency medical teams had arrived in the country this week from Australia, the United States and Germany.

The WHO chief said Papua New Guinea is an excellent example of why vaccine equity is so important. The small south Pacific nation, just north of Australia, was able to keep the pandemic at bay for a long time, but eventually rising infections hit at a time of social restriction fatigue and low levels of immunity among the population and began to overwhelm a fragile health care system.

Tedros said Papua New Guinea has relied on vaccine donations from Australia and the WHO-supported vaccine cooperative COVAX initiative for support.

To date, COVAX has shipped about 40 million doses to more than 100 countries, or enough to protect about 0.25% of the world's population.
 

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