Two years of COVID-19: Key milestones in the pandemic

a nurse sitting down, tired from her shift during the COVID-19 pandemic

An author has explored some of the most significant COVID-19 milestones. Image: Vladimir Fedotov

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Two years after the first case of COVID-19 was reported, we look back at key milestones in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • These include the identification of COVID-19 and its classification as a pandemic, the development of vaccines and their roll-out, as well as the emergence of new variants of coronavirus.
  • Amid the suffering and population lockdowns, there have been significant milestones in global cooperation.

In the two years since the first case of COVID-19 was reported, the disease has killed more than 5.27 million people across the globe.

But more than half of the world’s population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 Milestones

As we enter the third year of living with coronavirus, here are some of the most significant milestones in the spread of - and response to - the pandemic.


The first ‘pneumonia-like’ symptoms of COVID-19 appeared in early December 2019, with some sources suggesting similar symptoms appeared in November.

On 31 December, the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed about a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China.


On the first day of the new year, Huanan seafood market was shut down over links to the new disease. Three days later, the WHO reported a cluster of pneumonia cases on social media, with no deaths, in Wuhan.

The disease was identified by Chinese authorities as a new type of coronavirus, novel coronavirus, or nCoV, on 7 January.

The first coronavirus death was reported by Chinese state media on 10 January - of a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, who had underlying health conditions. Three days later, the first case was reported outside of China, in Thailand.

By 20 January, the COVID-19 disease had spread to the US, with the first confirmed case being a man in his 30s who had returned from a trip to Wuhan. There were also confirmed cases in Japan and South Korea.

Wuhan was locked down by Chinese authorities on 23 January, to halt the spread of the disease.

On 30 January, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The next day, the Trump administration suspended entry into the United States by any foreign national who had travelled to China in the past 14 days.


The first coronavirus death outside China was reported on 2 February - a man in his 40s from the Philippines. Three days later, more than 3,600 passengers were quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, as many passengers tested positive.

COVID-19 was officially named by the WHO on 11 February and the virus that causes the disease was named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.

Two hotspot regions in Italy went into lockdown on 23 February as the country saw a major surge in cases. Other countries around the globe would follow with lockdowns.

The first case in Sub-Saharan Africa was recorded in Nigeria on 28 February, and the first death was recorded in the US the following day.

MARCH 2020

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March, due to the rapid increase in the number of cases outside China. Two days later, the WHO launched the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to receive donations from private individuals, corporations and institutions.

On 19 March, the WHO reported confirmed cases have passed 200,000 worldwide. It took three months to reach the first 100,000 and just 12 days to double. By 22 March, cases had reached 300,000.

On 24 March, the milestone of more than 100,000 patients to successfully recover from the virus was reached, while the lockdown was partially lifted for China's Hubei Province. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a "complete" lockdown for the 1.3 billion population and, in Japan, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed until 2021.

On 27 March, President Trump signed a $2 trillion stimulus package into law to address both the health and economic crisis.

APRIL 2020

Cases pass 1 million on 1 April, while COVID-19 deaths pass 100,000 on 10 April.

In the US, figures showed nearly 10 million Americans had applied for unemployment benefits as a result of job losses caused by the disease.

On 6 April, the WHO estimated almost 90% of students were affected by school closures.

On 15 April, cases passed 2 million and Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced the virus-hit city would begin daily antibody testing for 2,000 essential workers, hoping to expand to 100,000 tests a day.

The largest trial yet of drug treatments for COVID-19 began in the UK on 17 April. The Recovery Trial worked with 5,000 patients in the National Health Service. On 23 April, Europe’s first human trial of a coronavirus vaccine began in the UK, led by an Oxford University team.

The next day, the WHO launched the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to speed up the development and production of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics.

MAY 2020

On 1 May, the US Food and Drug Administration issued emergency approval for the hepatitis and Ebola treatment, Remdesivir, to be used as COVID-19 treatment. The medicine was shown to help the conditions of seriously ill patients.

Days later, more than $8 billion was pledged to help develop a coronavirus vaccine and fund research and diagnosis. More than 30 countries, as well as the UN and philanthropic organizations contributed at the EU-hosted online summit.

UN agency, the World Tourism Organization, forecast on 7 May that the number of international tourists could fall by almost 80% in 2020, putting millions of jobs at risk.

a chart showing the ongoing COVID crisis for international tourism
Economic and international travel restrictions caused a huge drop in tourism revenues. Image: Statista

The official global coronavirus death toll passed 300,000, on 15 May, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

A study showed carbon emissions dropped by 17% in April compared to 2019, due to lockdowns.

JUNE 2020

On 7 June, 136,000 cases, the highest number in a single day, were reported. The number of cases in the US passed 2 million on 11 June.

On 28 June, global cases passed 10 million, only six days after reaching nine million, while deaths passed 500,000.

JULY 2020

US firm Moderna, the first to start a human trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, published early results showing it triggered an immune response against the virus with no serious side effects.

The WHO reported 75 countries had submitted expressions of interest to protect their populations and those of other nations through the COVAX Facility.


Cases on the African continent passed 1 million, according to Devex. On 10 August, global cases reached 20 million.

The WHO’s Dr Tedros said there were 9 vaccine candidates in the COVAX portfolio going through Phase 2 or 3 trials.


Trials of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine showed no serious side effects and elicited an antibody response, while Johnson & Johnson launched Phase 3 trials of its vaccine candidate.

The US recorded 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest of any country.

By the end of the month, the world had reached the grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths.


In a joint statement, UN agencies including the International Labour Organization and the WHO said almost half the world’s workforce was at risk of losing their jobs, while tens of millions could fall into extreme poverty.


Globally confirmed cases passed 50 million, while more than 1.25 million had died from COVID-19.

Pfizer announced its vaccine candidate created with BioNTech was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first interim efficacy analysis.

Two days later, it was announced the Sputnik V vaccine had been found to be 92% effective in the first interim analysis.

On 16 November, Moderna announced its Phase 3 trial data showed the vaccine to be more than 94% effective.

The following week, the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, announced its Phase 3 interim analysis results showed the vaccine was between 62% and 90% effective depending on different dose regimens.

Margaret Keenan, 90, is applauded by staff as she returns to her ward after becoming the first person in Britain to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech  COVID-19 vaccine at University Hospital, at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the British history, in Coventry, Britain December 8, 2020. Britain is the first country in the world to start vaccinating people with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. Jacob King/Pool via REUTERS     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
90-year-old Margaret Keenan was the first person in Britain to receive the Pfizer vaccination. Image: REUTERS


On 2 December, the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, followed two days later by Bahrain.

A 90-year-old grandmother in the UK became the first person in the world to receive a COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on 8 December.

On 31 December, exactly a year after it was first informed about a cluster of coronavirus cases, the WHO issued emergency use validation for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the first COVID-19 vaccine to receive one.


Jordan is among the first countries to supply COVID-19 vaccines to refugees.

On 15 January, the world passed 2 million COVID-19 deaths. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Our world has reached a heart-wrenching milestone.” Twelve days later, COVID-19 cases exceeded the 100 million milestone.

The WHO declared the P.1 variant - AKA the Gamma variant, first documented in Brazil - a variant of concern.


The WHO Director-General declared global vaccinations had surpassed the number of reported COVID-19 infections, although more than three quarters of those vaccinated lived in 10 countries.

The WHO listed two versions of the Astrazeneca vaccine for emergency use, allowing them to be rolled out globally through the COVAX facility.

G7 nations committed $4.3 billion to finance global access to tests, treatments and vaccines, part of a total commitment of $10.3 billion.

14 February marked the one year anniversary of Africa’s first reported COVID-19 case, in Egypt.

a chart showing the COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people, by income group
More than 8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered globally. Image: Our World in Data

MARCH 2021

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations launched a $3.5 billion plan aimed at reducing or eliminating the risk of future pandemics and epidemics.

After receiving authorization from the European Medicines Agency, 12 March saw the WHO list Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use.

On 30 March, the WHO released findings of a report into origins of the virus that finds it “highly likely” it was transmitted from a bat to humans.

APRIL 2021

A grim milestone was reached as confirmed global deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic passed 3 million, as the number of confirmed cases worldwide passed 150 million.

19 April marked the end of a week with 5.2 million cases reported, the highest rate since the pandemic started.

India recorded 315, 735 new cases on 21 April, the world’s highest recorded single-day total in any country.

MAY 2021

Have you read?

JUNE 2021

A second vaccine from China was approved for emergency use, taking the WHO’s list of vaccines approved for emergency use to six in total.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation sent $50 million to the Gavi vaccine alliance to support the COVAX vaccine access programme.

World Bank funding for the global vaccine programme was increased from $12 billion to $20 billion, to help strengthen the pandemic response.

JULY 2021

The European Union launched its digital COVID-19 certificate on 1 July, which confirmed EU citizens’ vaccination status required to move between member states.

7 July saw confirmed COVID-19 deaths around the world pass the 4 million milestone.

A new World Bank financing mechanism was launched to support developing nations to purchase COVID-19 vaccines supplies through the COVAX vaccine-access programme.




India passed the milestone of administering 1 billion COVID-19 vaccinations.

Pharmaceutical company Merck revealed study results showing its antiviral pill treatment reduced by half the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 when administered during early infection.



What is the World Economic Forum doing about access to vaccines?

A new variant of COVID-19 virus began to spread around the world. First discovered in South Africa, the Omicron variant was designated a variant of concern on 26 November.


In the first week of December, the Delta strain of COVID-19 remains the dominant variant worldwide.

Existing pandemic data and uncertainty around the impact of the Omicron variant have prompted the WHO to renew calls for people to be vaccinated when their turn comes, in order to save lives.

COVID-19 is still not over

While the pandemic is far from over, the ongoing vaccination programme is helping reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. But while vaccine programmes are readily available in many developed countries, there is work to be done to ensure equal access to protection for developing nations.

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