Fast-Spreading Covid-19 Variant Surges in Brazil, Worrying Scientists

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Fast-Spreading Covid-19 Variant Surges in Brazil, Worrying Scientists

SÃO PAULO—A new coronavirus variant from the Amazon is alarming scientists and overwhelming overcrowded hospitals in northern Brazil, raising the prospect of a prolonged outbreak in a country that has secured only a fraction of the vaccines it needs.

The P1 variant was first identified by researchers in mid-January among Japanese visitors to the Amazon, and it has since spread to another seven countries, including the U.S. It is likely more contagious and better able to reinfect people, according to researchers studying its mutations. Doctors fear it could also be more deadly.

While researchers are still in the early stages of investigating the Amazonian variant, epidemiologists say it is at least partly responsible for a more than fourfold rise in cases in the past month in Manaus, the city of two million in the heart of the rainforest.

They also say it may explain a puzzling rise in serious cases of the disease among younger patients, echoing early findings on the U.K. variant. A U.K. government health-advisory panel said recently that studies point to a roughly 30% higher mortality rate among patients infected with the B.1.1.7 variant first identified there late last year.

Latin America’s largest country risks becoming a breeding ground for more potentially dangerous coronavirus mutations, say infectious disease specialists. The more the virus spreads, they say, the greater the chance of other mutations that could boost transmissibility or even make the virus harder to check through vaccination.

“The virus found a favorable home in Brazil—there is no real lockdown here, many people don’t respect social distancing measures or even wear masks,” said Ana Tereza Vasconcelos, a researcher at the government-backed LNCC laboratory in Rio de Janeiro state that has been tracking Brazil’s Covid-19 variants.

While P1’s mutations have raised the most concerns among geneticists, a series of other Brazil-born variants warrant further investigation, she said.

A 34-year-old Covid-19 patient at her home in Manaus needed oxygen to help her breathe on Jan. 22.

The P1 variant wasn’t detected in Manaus between March and November last year, but by December it was already responsible for 52.2% of new cases in the city, according to research led by Nuno Faria, a professor of virus evolution at Oxford University and Imperial College London whose team first traced the P1 variant to the Amazon. In January, the variant has caused 85.4% of new infections there, he said.

The consequences have been devastating. About 100 people a day are dying in the city, according to government statistics. More than 30 people are reported to have suffocated after oxygen supplies ran out at overwhelmed public hospitals.

“It’s all so much worse than before,” said Suziele Pereira da Silva, a 35-year-old cleaner from Manaus. Her sister’s father-in-law died from Covid-19 a week ago after spending his final hours strewn across two chairs in a hospital corridor for lack of beds.

In neighboring Peru, amid a new surge in deaths, the government last week banned flights from Brazil. And Colombia’s government cut off flights to its capital Bogotá from the Amazonian town of Leticia that borders Brazil. A 24-year-old woman infected with the variant was treated in a Leticia hospital.

Brazil has reported more than 220,000 deaths from Covid-19, second only to the U.S. Some public-health researchers say President Jair Bolsonaro’s government moved too slowly to acquire vaccines and focused their efforts instead on controversial alternative treatments like the antimalarial chloroquine.

Brazil’s federal government has secured enough shots for only about six million people—not enough to cover all health workers let alone the elderly in a country of more than 210 million. Mr. Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain who quickly recovered from a mild bout of the disease last year, has dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu.” He said he doesn’t plan to get vaccinated himself.

Margareth Dalcolmo, a leading researcher at the government-backed Oswaldo Cruz Foundation that investigates public health issues, broke down in tears during a prize-giving ceremony two weeks ago, saying it was unacceptable that Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration hadn’t used Brazil’s vast size and thus competitive advantage to negotiate supply deals with vaccine makers.

A truck transported the Chinese vaccine known as CoronaVac in São Paulo on Jan. 26.

Workers prepare the CoronaVac factory in São Paulo for production of the Chinese vaccine. 

“What can justify that Brazil does not have vaccines available at this moment for its population?” Ms. Dalcolmo asked. In an interview, she also blamed the federal government for last-minute attempts to buy more syringes. “The right time to do that was six months ago,” she said.

Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general who served alongside Mr. Bolsonaro, said the federal government had been taking “lifesaving measures,” adding that the sudden rise in cases in Manaus had taken everybody by surprise. He also blamed problems in Manaus’s public hospitals that he said preceded Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration.

Brazil’s Supreme Court has opened an investigation into Mr. Pazuello’s handling of the health crisis in Manaus. Mr. Pazuello has said the federal government was aware that Manaus was facing a possible oxygen-supply problem a week before patients began to suffocate, sparking criticisms that Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration didn’t act sooner.

Manaus was one of the hardest-hit cities during Brazil’s first surge in Covid-19 infections in April-July last year, with some scientists concluding herd immunity had been reached. The latest wave of infections has turned that conclusion on its head.

A view of Manaus along the Rio Negro on Jan. 22.

One explanation, researchers say, is that the new P1 variant contains the E484K mutation, which has been linked to the virus’s ability to escape neutralizing antibodies, allowing it to reinfect people who have already had Covid-19.

While São Paulo is the only other Brazilian state apart from Amazonas to have confirmed cases of the P1 variant so far, researchers say it has likely already spread across much of the country.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday the P1 variant has already been identified in the U.S., Italy, Germany, the U.K., Ireland and South Korea, as well as Japan. As concerns grew about its global spread, the U.K. banned travelers from much of South America in January.

Flávia Lenzi, head of the doctors union in the adjacent state of Rondônia, said she suspected the P1 variant was at least partly to blame for a surge in new cases, which have more than doubled during the past month in the state.

As new coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand how dangerous they could be. WSJ explains. Illustration: Alex Kuzoian/WSJ

“We’re also seeing more serious cases and more cases involving younger patients,” Ms. Lenzi said. Last week, health authorities with the Yanomami Indian community in the northern Amazonian state of Roraima reported that nine children had died with Covid-like symptoms, although it was unclear if the new strain was the cause.

Brazil’s Health Ministry said in a statement that it’s investigating the deaths and has yet to confirm if they are linked to the virus.

A lack of genetic data from Brazil’s first wave of cases makes it harder to draw conclusions than in places such as the U.K., geneticists said.

Felipe Naveca, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation whose team identified the first case of a patient in Manaus reinfected with Covid-19 as a result of the P1 variant, has also blamed the region’s dire health crisis on poor governance.

“One of the principal factors behind this situation is the total lack of control,” he said, explaining that parties and family gatherings over the holiday period led to more infections.

Funeral workers closed the coffin on a 57-year-old man who died from Covid-19. His relatives said he didn’t want to go to the hospital for fear of dying alone.

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com

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