Brazil’s coronavirus variant is a warning to the world, scientists say

On Tuesday, Brazil recorded more than 1,700 Covid-19 deaths, its highest single-day toll of the pandemic. (Photo: Shutterstock)
On Tuesday, Brazil recorded more than 1,700 Covid-19 deaths, its highest single-day toll of the pandemic. (Photo: Shutterstock)

This Wednesday (3), Brazil announced an important deal with Pfizer to purchase 90 million doses of it’s coronavirus vaccine, making it the third approved vaccine soon to be roll out in country along with Oxford/AstraZeneca and CoronaVac.

The much celebrated news came into a crucial moment for Brazilians which are facing particular healthy crisis. A preliminary studies released this Tuesday (2) suggested that the coronavirus variant that swept through the city of Manaus appears able to infect some people who have already recovered from other versions of the virus. And the variant has slipped Brazil’s borders, showing up in small numbers in the United States and other countries.

Although trials of a number of vaccines indicate that they can protect against severe illness even when they do not prevent infection with the variant, most of the world has not been inoculated. That means even people who had recovered and thought they were safe for now might still be at risk, and that world leaders might, once again, be lifting restrictions too soon.

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“You need vaccines to get in the way of these things,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, speaking of variants that might cause reinfections.

Brazilians hoped that they had seen the worst of the outbreak last year. Manaus, capital of the northern state of Amazonas, was hit so hard in April and May that scientists believed the city may have reached herd immunity.

But then in September, cases in the state began rising again. By January, scientists had discovered that a new variant, which became known as P.1, had become dominant in the state. Within weeks, its danger became clear as hospitals in the city ran out of oxygen amid a crush of patients, leading scores to suffocate to death.

Throughout the pandemic, researchers have said that Covid-19 reinfections appear to be extremely rare, which has allowed people who recover to presume they have immunity, at least for a while. But that was before P.1 appeared.

One way to tamp down the surge would be through vaccinations, but the inoculation in Brazil has been quite slow.

Brazil began vaccinating health care professionals and older adults in late January. But the government has failed to secure a large enough number of doses. Wealthier countries have snapped up most of the supply, while President Jair Bolsonaro has been skeptical both of the disease’s impact and of vaccines.

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Margareth Dalcolmo, a pulmonologist at Fiocruz, a prominent scientific research center, said that Brazil’s failure to mount a robust inoculation campaign had set the stage for the current crisis.

“We should be vaccinating more than a million people per day,” she said. “We aren’t, not because we don’t know how to do it, but because we don’t have enough vaccines.”

Other countries should take heed, said Ester Sabino, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of São Paulo who is among the leading experts on the P.1 variant.

“You can vaccinate your whole population and control the problem only for a short period if, in another place in the world, a new variant appears,” she said. “It will get there one day.”

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