The World Health Organization's head of emergencies said Monday the agency's "best estimates" indicate that about 10% of the world's population has been infected by the coronavirus — a figure over 20 times higher than the number of current confirmed cases.
According to the Associated Press, Dr. Michael Ryan made the shocking comments while speaking during a special session to the WHO's 34-member executive board.
"Our current best estimates tell us that about 10 percent of the global population may have been infected by this virus," Ryan reportedly told the attendees, who provide much of the agency's funding.
"The disease continues to spread. It is on the rise in many parts of the world," he added, noting that figures vary between urban and rural areas and between different groups, but that ultimately "the vast majority of the world remains at risk."
He said that southeast Asia, Europe, and the eastern Mediterranean, in particular, are facing a surge in cases at the moment, but that the whole world, generally, was "heading into a difficult time."
Why does it matter?
The estimate, if correct, would amount to more than 760 million people based on the current global population of 7.6 billion. That figure greatly exceeds the current number of confirmed cases worldwide — which is projected by the WHO and Johns Hopkins University to be approximately 35.3 million.
The number of global deaths is estimated to be just over 1 million.
The AP reported that Ryan did not elaborate on the estimate, but that a spokesperson for the agency, Dr. Margaret Harris, noted the estimate was based on an average of antibody studies conducted around the world.
On one hand, the estimate paints a dark picture of a much more infectious disease and the possibility that there are a great multitude of asymptomatic carriers. But on the other hand, if the figure is accurate, then perhaps the virus is far less deadly than is presently believed.
It may also indicate an unsurprising lack of accurate reporting from several countries. For example, in China, where the global pandemic started late last year, only slightly over 90,000 confirmed cases have been reported.
The meeting is the first by the WHO's executive board since July, when President Donald Trump formally announced the United States' plan to withdraw from the organization, setting a one-year countdown for the country's official exit.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the WHO for allegedly lying about the coronavirus and running cover for China in the pandemic's early stages.