Deadlier coronavirus variants spreading rapidly in hard-hit Brazil

By Carlos Meneses Sanchez

Sao Paulo, Mar 5 (efe-epa).- New coronavirus variants that are considered deadlier and more infectious are spreading quickly in Brazil and now predominate in at least a quarter of the country, which is now mired in the peak of the pandemic with a daily death toll of more than 1,600.

Refrigerated containers to store dead bodies, ambulances converted into makeshift hospital beds, patients being transferred thousands of kilometers from their home states … The signs of an imminent health collapse in Brazil are increasingly evident.

Over the past three days, the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 has not fallen below 1,600. On Wednesday alone, Brazil set a grim national record with 1,910 deaths, the Health Ministry said.

The growing frustration of a portion of Brazil’s population after a year of restrictions, the coronavirus skepticism of rightist President Jair Bolsonaro and the lack of nationwide measures to contain the virus are also turning Brazil into a huge breeding ground for new variants, according to experts consulted by Efe.

“Brazil is becoming the biggest coronavirus open-air laboratory. A large number of mutations could occur,” leading to “more infectious and deadly variants,” Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscience professor at the Duke School of Medicine, told Efe on Friday.

Since the onset of the health emergency, Brazil has reported 260,970 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and nearly 10.8 million confirmed cases, although the real number of infections is believed to be two or even three times higher.

More than 70,000 new confirmed cases were registered over the past 24 hours, the most worldwide and even eclipsing the total in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.

And those numbers are putting a severe strain on the health system in Brazil, where more than 80 percent of intensive-care beds are currently occupied at hospitals spanning roughly three-quarters of the national territory.

Several factors are contributing to the ever-growing tsunami of coronavirus infections dating back to November, but scientists are most concerned about the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants with mutations associated with greater transmissibility.

Infection with worrisome variants now make up the majority of new cases detected in at least seven of Brazil’s 27 states: Amazonas, Ceara, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana, according to the Sao Paulo-based Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a leading Latin American science and technology health institution.

Hospitals are nearly at capacity in all seven of those states, but the problem of overcrowding is particularly severe in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana. And it could be just the beginning of an even bigger crisis.

“The effect of the variants will start to be felt now,” Nicolelis said.

In more than half of the coronavirus cases in those states, Fiocruz has identified a mutation shared by variants that first originated in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

The Brazilian variant, which is known as P.1 and was first detected in the northwestern state of Amazonas, is now present in virtually all parts of the country.

“It’s happening all over again. Amazonas was first, but now here come the others. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the P.1 were mainly responsible for what’s happening in the south,” Felipe Naveca, a virologist at the Leonidas & Maria Deane Institute (Fiocruz Amazonia) told Efe.

In addition, there are increasing signs that the Brazilian variant is able to evade the antibodies generated by the immune system of a person who survived a previous bout with Covid-19.

Worst of all, the higher number of cases increases the likelihood that a new variant will appear. In that regard, Fiocruz has bolstered its genetic sequencing capacity nationwide with a view to determining “whether the P.1 itself is also evolving.”

“While we have that environment with millions of daily cases, there’s the possibility that another variant will emerge. And I don’t know if it will be worse than P.1. We need to slow the transmission so there’s no chance of something worse appearing,” Naveca said.

A great deal of anxiety, meanwhile, has been generated by the slow vaccine rollout in Brazil, where only 3.5 percent of the population has received an initial vaccine dose.

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