Brazil Overtakes U.S. in Daily Covid-19 Deaths

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Brazil Overtakes U.S. in Daily Covid-19 Deaths

SÃO PAULO—Brazil has overtaken the U.S. as the country with the most daily Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world, as an aggressive strain of the disease from the Amazon leaves Latin America’s biggest nation scrambling for space in hospitals and cemeteries.

Brazil’s daily Covid-19 death toll surged to 2,286 on Wednesday, its highest yet during the pandemic. The U.S. death toll on Tuesday was 1,947.

Brazil’s seven-day average daily death toll has risen to 1,573 while the rate in the U.S. is plunging—down to 1,566 a day—amid fewer cases and more vaccination, according to Our World in Data at Oxford University. The U.S. hit a peak of just over 3,400 daily deaths in January.

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As many countries put the worst of the pandemic behind them, Brazil is facing one of its worst humanitarian crises yet as deaths and infections surge, registering in the past week almost 1,000 new cases every 20 minutes—more than 70,000 a day.

Public health specialists lay part of the blame on the rapid spread of the P.1 strain from the Amazonian city of Manaus, which studies have shown to be more contagious and better able to reinfect people than previous versions of the disease. Deaths have also surged as Brazil’s health system has struggled to cope, meaning patients who could have been saved were left to die in chaotic hospital corridors or—in the worst cases—suffocated to death for lack of oxygen.

Confirmed Covid-19 deaths, seven-day rolling average

Early November: Aggressive P.1 strain is born in the Amazonian city of Manaus, according to researchers’ estimates

Jan. 17: Brazil begins its vaccination campaign with a limited supply of shots

Feb. 13: Local transmission of P.1.confirmed in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, as strain spreads fast

March 1: ICU Covid-19 wards reach capacity or near-capacity in most Brazilian states

March

2020

Early November: Aggressive P.1 strain is born in the Amazonian city of Manaus, according to researchers’ estimates

Jan. 17: Brazil begins its vaccination campaign with a limited supply of shots

Feb. 13: Local transmission of P.1 confirmed in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, as strain spreads fast

March 1: ICU Covid-19 wards reach capacity or near-capacity in most Brazilian states

March

2020

Early November: Aggressive P.1 strain is born in the Amazonian city of Manaus, according to researchers’ estimates

Jan. 17: Brazil begins its vaccination campaign with a limited supply of shots

Feb. 13: Local transmission of P.1 confirmed in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, as strain spreads fast

March 1: ICU Covid-19 wards reach capacity or near-capacity in most Brazilian states

March

2020

Early November: Aggressive P.1 strain is born in the Amazonian city of Manaus, according to researchers’ estimates

Jan. 17: Brazil begins its vaccination campaign with a limited supply of shots

Feb. 13: Local transmission of P.1 confirmed in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, as strain spreads fast

March 1: ICU Covid-19 wards reach capacity or near-capacity in most Brazilian states

March

2020

March

2021

Brazil is now home to hundreds of new Covid-19 variants, researchers said, warning that other more dangerous versions could emerge the longer the disease is left to fester and mutate, threatening to undermine the progress of other countries against the pandemic.

“It seems like a nightmare,” said Mohamed Parrini, chief executive of the Moinhos de Vento Hospital in the southern city of Porto Alegre, who has been racing to convert other wards into makeshift ICUs. “The saddest thing is when you start to see the people around you also getting intubated—people’s husbands, the spouses and uncles of employees.”

Like many doctors across the country, Mr. Parrini said he was seeing more younger patients—many in their 30s and 40s—than during Brazil’s first wave of cases in the middle of last year. Researchers are still trying to understand why.

Covid-19 has killed more than 260,000 people in Brazil, including more than 10,000 in the past week. That puts the country only behind the U.S., which has more than 525,000 deaths.

A health worker administered a vaccine on Tuesday to a patient in Manaus, Brazil.

Photo: Sandro Pereira/Zuma Press

Public-health specialists have also blamed President Jair Bolsonaro for failing to secure more vaccines and for playing down the danger of the disease. The former army captain recently told Brazilians to get back to work and “stop whining.”

Brazil has inoculated only about 4% of its population. That means cases and deaths are likely to remain higher in Brazil for the coming months, epidemiologists say.

The U.S., Brazil and India have led in the total number of daily deaths for every month of the pandemic but the first few, when the virus began its deadly march from China to South Korea and Europe.

Public hospitals in the capital Brasília and across more than 20 of Brazil’s 26 states have now reached full capacity or are close to running out of beds in their ICU wards. Hospitals in Brasília, the Amazon and the south have resorted to renting refrigerated shipping containers to store corpses after their on-site morgues filled up. Meanwhile, cemeteries in some cities such as Campo Grande in the center-west have dug up their parking lots to make more room for graves.

As a proportion of its population of 213 million people, Brazil has suffered fewer deaths so far than the U.S., as well as Mexico, Peru and several European nations. But the speed of Brazil’s recent wave of fatalities—and the fact it runs contrary to the global trend—has prompted deep concern over the country’s fate as well as the potential of the P.1 strain to wreak similar havoc across the region.

A mourner at the coffin of a relative who died of Covid-19 on Tuesday in São Paulo.

Photo: carla carniel/Reuters

A recent study showed P.1 to be 1.4 to 2.2 times more contagious than versions of the virus previously found in Brazil, and 25% to 61% more capable of reinfecting people.

Researchers believe P.1 first emerged in Manaus in early November and by January, the new strain was already responsible for 85% of new Covid-19 infections in the city.

Chaos soon followed. After scores of patients suffocated to death in Manaus in January following a citywide shortage of oxygen, a convoy of trucks from Venezuela made the 26-hour drive south through the rainforest to deliver supplies. Prosecutors have also been investigating reports last month that intubated patients in the region were tied to their beds following a shortage of sedatives.

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While the infection rate and daily death toll have shown signs of falling in Amazonas state over recent weeks, other states further south are facing their darkest days yet as P.1 continues to spread. São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest and wealthiest city, has called on volunteer doctors to help relieve exhausted medical staff as ICU occupancy rates reach 80% for the first time.

Brazil began its vaccination campaign on Jan. 17, but has proceeded slowly. There have been mixed signs over how Brazil’s principal vaccine, the Chinese CoronaVac shot, and other Covid-19 vaccines will work against P.1. The Butantan Institute and Fiocruz, Brazilian research centers that are producing the CoronaVac vaccine and the Oxford- AstraZeneca shot respectively, said studies show both are effective against P.1.

A laboratory study this week showed that Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine was able to neutralize P.1. However, another small study showed this month that plasma from people vaccinated five months ago with CoronaVac “failed to efficiently neutralize” the strain.

As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape. Illustration: Nick Collingwood/WSJ

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

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