The U.K. will close its borders to travelers from South America and Portugal on Friday as concern grows over a new Covid-19 variant that researchers believe emerged in the Brazilian Amazon, a region that has struggled to cope with the disease.
The variant, which shares similarities with the highly-infectious types identified in Britain and South Africa, was reported in Japan earlier this month among a group of travelers who had recently returned from the Amazon and was also responsible for a case of re-infection in the vast Brazilian state of Amazonas, researchers said.
The U.K. Department for Transport said Thursday it would refuse entry from early Friday to anyone who has traveled from or through South America and Portugal in the past 10 days. The ban also includes Panama and the Portuguese-speaking African nation Cape Verde.
“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant first identified in Brazil, that may have spread to countries with strong travel links to Brazil,” the department said Thursday.
Infectious disease specialists in the Amazon have long feared that the hard-hit region could become a breeding ground for mutations of the virus as the local health system verges on collapse.
Gov. Wilson Lima of Amazonas, the biggest Brazilian state in the Amazon and home to the state capital, Manaus, said Thursday the region’s hospitals were running out of oxygen as the state faces its worst crisis so far since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We’re in a warlike situation,” Gov. Lima said, explaining that some patients were being transferred to other states outside of the Amazon for treatment. “We’re often considered to be the ‘lungs of the world’…but today it’s our people that need oxygen,” he said.
Intensive care beds for Covid-19 patients across the state’s hospitals are currently at around 91% occupancy. Some residents in Manaus, home to 2.2 million people, told Brazilian news network Globo that they had resorted to buying their own oxygen cylinders in a desperate bid to save dying relatives.
Meanwhile, cemeteries in the jungle-flanked city have been forced to dig mass graves to cope with a record number of corpses. Manaus’s municipal government said the city buried 198 people on Wednesday, the highest number in a single day so far.
Across the country, Covid-19 has killed more than 200,000 people, the highest number of deaths reported anywhere outside the U.S.
Felipe Naveca, a researcher for the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Amazonas state who has been investigating the new variant, said that it showed a similar change in the genetic code to the ones discovered in the U.K. and South Africa. Changes in the so-called spike protein on the surface of the virus can increase the protein’s ability to cling onto and enter human cells, making the virus more contagious.
However, Mr. Naveca said researchers were still investigating whether the new strain really was more contagious and how it would respond to the Covid-19 vaccines already under development. There is no evidence it is more harmful, he said.
The U.K.’s travel ban comes as the country struggles to cope with its own homegrown variant. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a national lockdown until mid-February amid spiraling infection rates.
“We knew that mutations would occur,” said Mr. Naveca, adding that disease hot spots such as the U.K. and Brazil allow the virus to evolve more rapidly. Mr. Naveca said researchers are currently mapping the new Brazilian variant across the Latin American country to see how widespread it is, saying he expected them to announce their conclusions as early as next week.
Amazonas’s authorities had already been bracing for a rise in new cases at the beginning of this year. Many Brazilians ignored government warnings and got together over the holiday period, while the rainy season had also encouraged more people to gather indoors where the virus spreads more easily. However, Mr. Naveca said it was possible that the new variant had also contributed to a recent surge in infections.
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