PARIS -- The world passed the grim milestone of 1.5 million global coronavirus deaths on Thursday, as several nations planned to deliver much hoped-for vaccines early next year to break the cycle of lockdowns and restrictions.
But even as the latest positive news about a vaccine was announced, with the Moderna candidate showing it confers immunity for at least three months, several countries marked new COVID-19 records.
Italy registered 993 deaths, topping its previous record of 969 earlier in the year when it was the first European country to be affected by the pandemic.
Iran, the Middle East's hardest hit country, passed one million cases even as authorities considered easing restrictions and Britain recorded over 60,000 deaths.
The world's hardest-hit country, the United States, recorded its highest daily death toll -- 2,731 -- since March, as the number of hospitalised for the virus crossed 100,000 for the first time.
And Robert Redfield, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that rough times were ahead in January and February.
"I actually believe they're going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation," he said, warning that as many as 450,000 could be dead in the U.S. by February.
The pandemic is showing little sign of slowing down, with more than 10,000 new deaths recorded worldwide every day since Nov. 24 -- a rate never reached before, according to an AFP tally.
As the world tires of economically crippling restrictions, attention has turned to the race for a vaccine.
Britain on Wednesday became the first Western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine for general use, piling pressure on other countries to swiftly follow suit.
But leading American infectious disease scientist Anthony Fauci said Britain "rushed" its approval process.
"In all fairness to so many of my UK friends, you know, they kind of ran around the corner of the marathon and joined it in the last mile," he told CBS news.
Also on Thursday, a study showed that the Moderna vaccine, which was recently demonstrated to have 94% efficacy, causes the immune system to produce potent antibodies that endure for at least three months.
In anticipation of such vaccines being approved, France announced that its vaccinations will be free and begin in January for one million elderly in retirement homes, February for 14 million at-risk people and spring for the rest of the population.
France was also mourning the latest high-profile figure to succumb to COVID-19, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who died at the age of 94.
Belgium's government also said it intends to start vaccinating its most vulnerable in January.
But the raised hopes didn't only garner the attention of governments -- IBM said Thursday that hackers are targeting the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain.
The tech giant said it was "unclear" if a series of cyber attacks it uncovered against companies involved in the effort to distribute doses around the world had been successful.
IBM could not identify who was behind the attacks, but said that the precision of the operation signals "the potential hallmarks of nation-state tradecraft".
'Vaccine cannot undo damage'
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that even if vaccines are quickly approved, the world would still be fighting the pandemic's aftershocks.
"Let's not fool ourselves. A vaccine cannot undo damage that will stretch across years, even decades to come," Guterres said while opening a special UN summit on the virus.
Guterres reiterated his call that vaccines be considered a "global public good" that are shared around the world.
More than 180 countries have joined Covax, a global collaboration initiative by the World Health Organization to work with manufacturers to distribute vaccines equitably.
However South Africa, the continent's hardest virus-hit country, missed its initial Covax payment deadline, local media reported Thursday.
Even assuming a successful vaccine is available, many countries are gearing up for the next fight: convincing sceptical populations they should get inoculated.
Former U.S. presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have volunteered to take a vaccine on camera if it will help promote public confidence.
"I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science, and what I don't trust is getting COVID," Obama said in a radio interview.