10% of world’s population may have been infected with coronavirus, WHO estimates

People wait for coronavirus test results in Jammu, India.
People wait for coronavirus test results in Jammu, India, on Monday.
(Channi Anand / Associated Press)

The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Monday that its “best estimates” indicate roughly 1 in 10 people worldwide may have been infected by the coronavirus — more than 20 times the number of confirmed cases — and warned of a difficult period ahead.

Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking to a special session of the WHO’s 34-member executive board focusing on COVID-19, said that the figures vary from urban to rural areas and between different groups, but that ultimately they show “the vast majority of the world remains at risk.” He said that the pandemic would continue to evolve but that tools exist to suppress transmission and save lives.

“Our current best estimates tell us that about 10% of the global population may have been infected by this virus,” Ryan said.


The estimate — which would amount to more than 760 million people based on a current world population of about 7.6 billion — is more than 20 times greater than the number of confirmed cases tallied by both the WHO and Johns Hopkins University. That tally is more than 35 million.

Experts have long said that the number of confirmed cases greatly underestimates the true figure.

Ryan said Southeast Asia faced a surge in cases, and Europe and the eastern Mediterranean were seeing an increase in deaths. The situations in Africa and the Western Pacific were “rather more positive.”

Ryan warned that the world was “now heading into a difficult period. The disease continues to spread. It is on the rise in many parts of the world.”

But “many deaths have been averted and many more lives can be protected,” Ryan said. He was flanked by his boss, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who minutes earlier led a moment of silence to honor victims and a round of applause for the health workers who had tried to save them.


Last week saw the global COVID-19 death toll surpass 1 million.