SÃO PAULO – Researchers and doctors sound the alarm a new, more aggressive type of coronavirus from the Amazon region of Brazil, which they believe is responsible for the recent increase in deaths, as well as infections in younger people, in parts of South America.
Brazil’s daily death toll from the disease climbed to its highest level this week, pushing the total number of Covid-19 deaths in the country past a quarter of a million. On Tuesday, Brazil reported a record 1,641 deaths from Covid. Neighboring Peru is struggling to curb a second wave of infections.
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The new variant, known as P.1, was 1.4 to 2.2 times more contagious than the version of the virus previously found in Brazil, and 25% to 61% more capable of reinfecting people who had been infected with the previous strain, according to a study. released Tuesday.
With mass vaccination away across the region, countries like Brazil are at risk of becoming breeding grounds strong virus version that could make the current Covid-19 vaccine less effective, public health specialists warn.
A more prolonged pandemic could also devastate the economies of countries like Brazil, slow growth and widen already large piles of sovereign debt as governments make payments to the poor, economists say.
“We have a dramatic situation here – the health systems in many states in Brazil have collapsed and others will be damaged in the coming days,” said Eliseu Waldman, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
Several doctors have reported a surge in younger patients on their Covid-19 wards, many in their 30s and 40s with no underlying health problems. In Peru, some doctors said patients became seriously ill sooner, just three or four days after first symptoms appeared, compared with an average of nine to 14 days last year.
“This virus behaves differently,” said Rosa Lopez, a doctor in the intensive care unit at Guillermo Almenara Irigoyen Lima Hospital. “It is very aggressive … the situation is very difficult, very dire.”
The Amazonian strain, P.1, emerged in the Brazilian city of Manaus late last year and quickly caught the attention of Brazilian and international scientists racing to map its distribution. The large number of variant mutations to the spike protein, which help the virus penetrate cells, is of particular concern.
“We are at the worst of times. I wouldn’t be surprised if P.1 were all over Brazil now, ”said Felipe Naveca, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation who has studied the new strain. He estimates that Brazil is already home to hundreds of new Covid-19 variants, even though P.1. is the most worrying so far, he said.
However, researchers are still confused as to why more young people are getting sick and whether P.1 is more deadly, or more contagious.
“The recent epidemic in Manaus has weighed on the city’s health care system, leading to inadequate access to medical care,” wrote study author P.1, led by Nuno Faria, a professor of viral evolution at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. .
“We were therefore unable to determine whether the estimated increased relative risk of death was due to P.1 infection, pressure on the Manaus health care system, or both,” they wrote.
A study led by Mr Naveca released last week showed that in some cases the P.1 strain carried a viral load about 10 times higher than the initial version of the virus circulating in Brazil for most of the pandemic. But an international group of scientists led by Mr Faria concluded that it would not be possible to determine whether P.1 infection was associated with increased viral load until detailed clinical investigations were carried out.
Researchers in South Africa grapple with the same questions while studying Another new variant, B.1.351. Doctors there also reported increased hospitalizations and deaths for younger patients, but the researchers concluded that more younger people became seriously ill as more people became infected overall. The likelihood of younger people dying increased, they said, because hospitals were overwhelmed, not because the variant itself was more lethal.
Another possible explanation for the increase in younger patients is that the virus has spread through many of the elderly who have died, said Francisco Cardoso, an infectious disease specialist at Emílio Ribas hospital in São Paulo.
Latin America has been one of the world’s Covid-19 hotspots since the pandemic began, but in recent days doctors in Brazil have grown increasingly desperate, portraying horror scenes across the country. While the new strains are largely to blame, so is a lack of preparation and prevention by regional governments, said public health specialists.
Hospitals operate with ICU occupancy rates above 80% in nearly two-thirds of Brazilian states. After many patients suffocate in Manaus Earlier this year when the hospital ran out of oxygen, prosecutors were investigating reports from another Amazon city that intubated patients were tied to their beds after a sedative shortage.
In Peru, where the government has detected the P.1 strain, hospitals were quickly pushed out of capacity as infections spiked in January after one of the world’s worst outbreaks last year. Doctors are now choosing among dozens of patients when the ICU beds are open, while Chile is donating rescue oxygen amid an acute shortage.
The scene comes as the US, UK and Israel celebrate falling infection rates amid a mass vaccination campaign, evidence of a widening immunity gap between rich and poor countries. While more than 15% of people in the US have received a Covid-19 shot, Brazil has administered the vaccine to only 3% of the population. Peru and Colombia have vaccinated less than 1%.
If Latin America doesn’t find a way to speed up vaccination campaigns, other countries such as Colombia and Bolivia that have seen a slowdown in recent infections could also fall victim to the new variant, infectious disease specialists said.
The longer the disease is allowed to rot in countries like Brazil, the more likely it is that new variants will emerge that reduce the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine, thus also becoming a threat to countries that have immunized their populations.
“Unless everyone in the world gets the vaccine immediately, none of us will be protected,” said Patricia Garcia, a former Peruvian health minister and epidemiologist. It will never stop.
Cesar Palacios, a 44-year-old pediatrician in the northern Peruvian city of Piura, lost his parents and younger sister to the disease earlier this year. She spent 10 days on a ventilator after she fell ill herself, her illness escalating rapidly as oxygen levels in her blood dropped to dangerous territory, at 86% just a day after her first symptoms. A few days later he was in the ICU.
“When you are going to be on a mechanical ventilator, you think, am I going to live? Am I going to die? “Said Dr. Palacios. “I have no other choice. I am very afraid. “
While Peru has imposed a curfew on Lima and other states with high infections, Brazilian cities such as São Paulo and its capital, Brasília, have imposed stricter restrictions over the past few days.
But many Brazilians break the rules, following directions from the country’s president. Right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro has played down the disease and attacked state governors for imposing a lockdown, accusing them of destroying local businesses.
The military police in São Paulo raided about 50 companies over the weekend that refused to comply, including a group of 190 elderly Brazilians holding a clandestine party.
—Luciana Magalhaes in São Paulo and Gabriele Steinhauser in Johannesburg contributed to this article.
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