An illustration of a coronavirus. One of these viruses, SARS-CoV-2, causes covid-19.
An illustration of a coronavirus. One of these viruses, SARS-CoV-2, causes covid-19.
Illustration: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS (CDC)

The world reached two somber milestones this Thursday. There have now been more than 1 million reported cases of covid-19, the pandemic disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Earlier in the day, the reported death toll climbed past 50,000. Both numbers undersell the damage that covid-19 has wrought globally in the span of only a few months.

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According to a tracker developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers, which collects data from local and national health agencies, media reports, and other sources, there have been 1.02 million covid-19 cases as of 3:24 p.m., U.S. Eastern Daylight Time. There are also at least 51,000 reported deaths attributed to covid-19.

Though the official tally may take some time to catch up with these figures, no one’s likely to dispute them. On Wednesday, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom, stated that we would hit both marks within the next few days. According to the WHO, there have been cases of covid-19 found in over 200 countries, territories, and distinct municipalities—nearly all that exist.

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The outbreak of covid-19 is thought to have begun in earnest in late December, with China publicly reporting cases for the first time on December 31. But it’s likely that cases were spreading in the country as far back as November. Experts agree that the virus was likely transmitted from animals to humans, though a clear origin has not yet been established. Within a month, China enacted strict travel restrictions to and from the country, which other countries such as the U.S. did as well. But studies have suggested that the virus was already spreading across the world by then.

Though covid-19 has now reached every corner of the globe, countries have responded differently to it. Some, such as South Korea and Singapore, have appeared able to quickly curtail the spread of the disease through the intensive testing of its population as well as the tracking and isolation of cases. China too seems to have beaten back their outbreak, but its own residents have questioned the accuracy of their reporting, accusing officials of undercounting the number of people who have died from it. (China has reported a little over 3,200 deaths and 82,000 cases). A U.S. intelligence report also found that China had undercounted the numbers of people infected and killed by covid-19, according to a Bloomberg report on Wednesday. The country today denied the accusations as a “despicable attempt to put political interests above human life.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, the lack of accessible testing for months has hampered attempts to curb local outbreaks, much less to know how many people really have the illness. Even so, the country now has over 230,000 reported cases—about double the number of Italy, the country with the second-most reported cases.

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Some people are now thought to carry the coronavirus that causes covid-19, called SARS-CoV-2, without feeling sick at all, while still being capable of spreading the infection to others. That means the true number of cases is likely far higher than reported. And the true fatality rate of the disease is probably lower than the current 3 to 5 percent documented rate. But even outside of China, some experts are starting to suspect that we’re undercounting deaths everywhere.

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Regardless of the exact numbers right now, what’s certain is the devastation that covid-19 has and will continue to cause countries hit hard by it. In Italy and the U.S., hospitals in highly affected areas have been flooded with new cases of severe pneumonia, with crucial medical resources like ventilators in short supply. The drastic steps needed to keep the virus from spreading even further, such as the shutdown of many non-essential businesses and schools, have also led to mass unemployment in countries like the U.S., imperiling many who now find themselves without health coverage.

According to U.S. health officials, some 100,000 to 200,000 Americans are expected to die from covid-19 before the outbreak ends. But even that projection assumes we do everything we can to slow it down. Many experts expect that it will take at least a year for this pandemic to run its course, provided that a successful vaccine is developed as soon as possible.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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