Two million dead.
It is more people than call the state of Nebraska home. It is roughly equal to the population of Slovenia. And it is more than three times the number of people killed in the American Civil War.
The global death toll from the coronavirus soared past the 2 million mark Friday, just over a year after the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
And the carnage is spreading faster now than at any other time in the pandemic.
It took more than nine months for the world to pass 1 million deaths in late September, a moment that the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, called “mind-numbing” and “an agonizing milestone.” In a little more than three months, the virus has claimed another 1 million lives.
And as it spreads, it continues to evolve.
It is the same virus, but several variants now circulating around the world are the subject of urgent scientific study, as some have been shown to be even more infectious than the iteration that at one point last spring forced about 4 billion people to shelter at home.
One variant that stymied efforts to contain outbreaks in Britain in the fall is now responsible for a flood of patients that is stretching the nation’s hospitals to the breaking point, officials say.
The World Health Organization said this week that the variant had been detected in 22 European nations, and governments across the continent continue to tighten restrictions in response to the threat. More than 230 million people across Europe are now under full national lockdowns, according to the WHO.
Even before the new variants were discovered, the death toll in the United States already dwarfed that of any other country. The virus has now killed nearly 400,000 Americans, according to a New York Times database. And with the country’s new cases still averaging about 240,000 cases per day, there are few signs of it slowing.
Next week, as president, Joe Biden will take charge of what has been perhaps the world’s most disjointed response to the pandemic. In the course of the past year, even the decision of whether to wear a mask became politicized.
Biden — like his counterparts around the world — will have an increasingly available tool at his disposal in the form of vaccines. He has vowed to have 100 million doses in arms during his first 100 days in office, and other governments have likewise made ambitious pledges.
But the initial rollouts in many countries have been met with problems: logistical confusion, shortages of doses, unequal distribution and bureaucratic hurdles that have slowed the process of getting shots into people’s arms.
Israel’s inoculation process has been the fastest, with roughly 25% of its population of 9 million getting vaccinations in just one month. Britain has sped up its efforts and in the week ending Jan. 10 added more than 1.2 million people to the number who had been given shots, edging near the government’s goal of more than 2 million per week. More than 3 million people have now been give at least a first dose of a vaccine in Britain, and Italy says it has given 1 million shots.
So far, there is no evidence that any of the variants affect the viability of the vaccines that countries have approved for emergency use. However, scientists have cautioned that this may not always be the case as the virus continues to mutate.
In the meantime, officials are trying to persuade weary and anxious populations to continue to follow social distancing protocols — a harder sell now than it was a year ago, when the virus carried with it the added fear factor of being new.
Even in places hit hard by the virus, the need for human connection is strong.
Although India has recorded more than 150,000 deaths, the world’s third-highest toll, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims have gathered on the banks of the Ganges River in recent days as part of the Kumbh Mela, an annual pilgrimage.
And even in nations where the virus appears to have been tamed, authorities are maintaining vigilance to ensure that it does not reestablish its grip.
In China, where the wet market at the epicenter of the outbreak remains closed but others are again open, a team of experts from the WHO arrived this week to begin hunting for the source of the pathogen and how it made the suspected leap from animals to humans.
The virus’ origin is just one of the many enduring mysteries of a virus that has officially infected nearly 100 million people, and likely many more, around the world. And this week, underscoring just how persistent and pervasive it is, it claimed its first life in China since May.