Geneva, Switzerland
Reuters

The world faces a shortage of oxygen concentrators as the number of worldwide cases of coronavirus infection nears the 10 million mark, the World Health Organization head said on Wednesday.

"Many countries are now experiencing difficulties obtaining oxygen concentrators," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference. "Demand is currently outstripping supply." 

Coronavirus US Houston health worker

A medical worker walks to work as storm clouds gather over the Texas Medical Center, amid the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Houston, Texas, US, on 22nd June. PICTURE: Reuters/Callaghan O'Hare.

The new coronavirus has hit 9.3 million people and killed more than 480,000 so far and is rising by about one million cases per week. This has pushed oxygen demand to 88,000 large cylinders per day, or 620,000 cubic metres of oxygen, Tedros said.

The sudden rise has created a dearth of oxygen concentrators needed to support breathing of COVID-19 patients suffering from respiratory distress. 

The health agency has purchased 14,000 oxygen concentrators from manufacturers and plans to send them to 120 countries in coming weeks, Tedros said. A further 170,000 concentrators - valued at some $US100 million - will be potentially available over the next six months.

The head of the WHO emergencies program, Dr Mike Ryan, meanwhile said the pandemic in many Latin American countries was still intense as deaths in the region surpassed 100,000 this week. Many countries had experienced 25 to 50 per cent increases in cases in the past week, he said.

"I would characterise the situation in the Americas in general as still evolving, not having reached its peak yet, and likely to result in sustained numbers of cases and continued deaths," he said.

The United States has criticised WHO's handling of the pandemic, calling the agency "China-centric". President Donald Trump demanded an immediate review and reforms and has pledged to quit the Geneva-based body.

European governments are also working with the United States on an overhaul plan.

While Tedros has pledged accountability and a post-pandemic review, Ryan said on Wednesday the agency was holding internal talks over its actions including what it has learned about controlling the virus.

Meanwhile, the University of Washington on Wednesday forecast nearly 180,000 US deaths from COVID-19 by 1st October as cases showed new signs of surging and the governors of three north-east states ordered travelers from other parts of the country to quarantine upon arrival for 14 days. 

The prediction by the school's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation includes a caveat that deaths from the virus could drop to 146,000 if 95 per cent of Americans wore masks.

“There is no doubt that even as states open up, the United States is still grappling with a large epidemic on a course to increase beginning in late August and intensifying in September," IHME Director Christopher Murray said in a statement.

- With JONATHAN ALLEN and PETER SZEKELY