The global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic topped a quarter of a million on Tuesday, with the US government predicting a further surge in fatalities as an international vaccine drive garnered $8 billion in pledges.
The dire forecast from the United States came as much of the Western world emerged from weeks of lockdown, with hopes that the disease may have peaked in Europe, where deaths in the worst affected countries have dropped after nearly two months of confinement.
But the global progress did little to cool a war of words between the US and China over responsibility for the pandemic – a feud that has been fueled by US claims the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory — a theory the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled “speculative.”
An AFP tally of official figures showed Europe is the hardest-hit continent with around 145,000 fatalities. The US has recorded close to 68,700. Together they account for more than 85 percent of global deaths.
Since the disease first surfaced in China late last year the number of confirmed cases has reached almost 3.6 million.
The grim figures were compounded Monday by an internal government estimate in Washington that forecast the daily COVID-19 infection rate in the US could surge more than eight-fold to 200,000 per day by June 1, and the death toll could rise to 3,000.
As the country struggles to contain the disease the White House has stepped up its offensive against China, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday saying there is “enormous evidence” the virus emerged in a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
That claim was rejected Monday by the WHO as well as top US epidemiologist and government adviser Anthony Fauci.
“Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that (this virus) evolved in nature and then jumped species,” he said.
US President Donald Trump has acknowledged that deaths will go beyond his earlier prediction of 60,000, saying: “We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people”.
His prediction underscored the tough, politically-tinged debate over reopening, which pits concerns about a rising death toll against the need to restore national economies shattered by prolonged shutdowns.
The economic fallout in America prompted the US Treasury to announce it will borrow a record $3 trillion in the April-June period largely to finance spending on virus relief programmes.
Meanwhile, on Monday US manufacturing giant General Electric announced it will cut an additional 10,000 jobs from its aviation sector as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the industry.