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27 January 2021updated 28 Aug 2021 8:51pm

How the world reached 100 million coronavirus cases

The pandemic’s uneven global spread tells a story of initial neglect followed by increased testing.

By Michael Goodier

More than 100 million people worldwide have been confirmed as having been infected with Covid-19, according to the latest global figures. The statistics, compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University using data from governments around the world, show that the equivalent of 1.3 per cent of the world’s population have tested positive for the virus at some point more than one in every 77 people.

The graphic below shows how the world was largely taken by surprise by the new pathogen, as well as how the battleground against the disease has shifted over the past year. (You can see statistics for individual countries, including vaccinations, using our global coronavirus tracker here.)


The timeline is a familiar one. As people around the world celebrated the end of a decade, a global threat was emerging in China. At the time, Chinese authorities suspected the virus stemmed from a wet market in Wuhan though the exact part it may or may not have played in the outbreak is still a mystery: cases have since been traced further back in people with no contact with the market. By 23 January Wuhan was in lockdown. But it was too late: the virus had escaped, and was making its way around the global population. 

Italy’s first two official cases were confirmed in Rome on 31 January, and Iran announced its first Coronavirus cases on 19 Feb. The World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a pandemic in March when the chart above begins. 

As China’s cases fell in February and March, the epicentre moved to Europe, where countries across the continent were forced into a series of lockdowns. 

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The United States would eventually overtake Europe’s case rate in April. Almost 10 million Americans lost their jobs in the space of two weeks as a result of the pandemic. The US was surpassed in the summer by Latin America, with large outbreaks in Brazil and Mexico, even as cases in Europe began to fall. 

The easing of pandemic restrictions in late summer led cases to build again in Europe and the US. These second waves appeared larger than the first in terms of case numbers, but the increase was largely because most countries had rapidly scaled up their testing.

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The uneven nature of testing also means that, while more than one in every 77 people around the world are confirmed to have had the virus to date, the true figure is likely far higher, with cases going unrecorded.

As the world passes the grim milestone of 100 million cases, the fact remains that we will never know exactly how many people have contracted Covid-19.

[See also: How long will lockdown last?]