New coronavirus strain adds to health emergency in hard-hit Brazilian state

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Jan 15 (efe-epa).- The new coronavirus strain detected in Brazil’s Amazon region has already had international repercussions, with the United Kingdom moving to prohibit flights from Portugal and South America.

Now, some Brazilian regions are barring the entry of travelers from the western state of Amazonas, where a rising Covid-19 case load has put hospitals there under severe strain.

Although authorities have not yet confirmed that the spike in cases in the Amazon is related to the new strain, experts at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), Latin America’s largest medical research center, told Efe that the new variant originated in Amazonas state, is circulating in that region and apparently is more contagious than the original strain.

As a precautionary measure, the government of the neighboring state of Para on Thursday began barring the circulation of boats with passengers from Amazonas and has not ruled out prohibiting the entry of passengers overland and even obtaining court approval for restricting commercial flights.

Covid-19 deaths have risen sharply in Amazonas, where almost 6,000 people have succumbed to the virus. Its capital, Manaus, home to 2 million of that state’s 3 million inhabitants, is experiencing a repeat of the situation 10 months ago when it ran out of hospital beds.

It also has insufficient oxygen for the most severely ill coronavirus patients.

Anguish and desperation are palpable in every corner of the city. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and patients in intensive care units are suffocating due to a lack of oxygen.

The dramatic situation has prompted authorities to impose an 11-hour daily curfew and transfer hundreds of patients to other Brazilian states.

Amid the crisis, experts are racing to determine the level of contagiousness of the new strain discovered in the Brazilian Amazon.

Studies indicate that the so-called “Brazilian variant” originated in Manaus and may be more transmissible than those identified thus far in the country.

It has already been identified in several patients in Amazonas’ capital and must have already spread to other regions of Brazil, researchers say.

The Brazilian variant is the same strain as one that arrived in Japan after four Japanese travelers visited the Amazon region and is characterized by 12 mutations, including one also found in strains recently detected in the UK and South Africa.

Nevertheless, the variant from Brazil is a completely separate strain from those that originated in those other countries, with experts saying it could have evolved from a variant that has been circulating in the Amazon since April of last year.

Paola Resende, a researcher as Fiocruz’s respiratory virus laboratory, told Efe there are countless variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 because mutations naturally occur in pathogens that use RNA as genetic material.

“We’ve already detected more than 40 strains since the start of the pandemic, but countless numbers are circulating,” the virologist said, adding that the Amazon variant is the most worrying at the moment because of the changes to its spike protein – the part of the virus that attaches to human cells.

Experts have begun establishing that strain’s genetic sequence and plan to verify its proportion of the latest coronavirus cases reported in Amazonas and whether it is a cause or effect of the recent spike.

“In other words, whether the number of cases rose as a result of that variant or if the uncontrolled (increase in the) number of cases led to its creation,” virologist Felipe Naveca, Fiocruz’s deputy director of research in Amazonas, Felipe Naveca, told Efe.

The researcher insisted, however, that the crisis in Manaus cannot be attributed to the new variant, noting that other variables are in play such as the normal, end-of-year rise in respiratory illnesses in that region and people’s non-compliance with restrictive measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“If the precautions had been maintained, the virus wouldn’t have spread. I think that was the main cause,” he said.

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