Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by the world’s worst daily death toll.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has doubled down on his opposition to lockdown measures to contain Covid-19 even as experts warned a large-scale stay-at-home was “absolutely necessary” to slow a deadly surge of the coronavirus.
Brazil’s Health Ministry registered 4,195 deaths on Tuesday, becoming the third country to go above that threshold as Bolsonaro's political opponents demanded stricter measures to slow down the spread of the virus.
“We're not going to accept this politics of stay home and shut everything down," Bolsonaro said, resisting the pressure in a speech in the city of Chapeco in Santa Catarina state. “There will be no national lockdown."
Brazil's conservative president also defended the use of so-called early treatment protocols, which include anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. No scientific studies have found the drug effective to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“There is not enough vaccine today in the world. We need to find alternatives,” he said.
The number of deaths in Chapeco linked to the virus has finally come down after some very difficult weeks. Intensive care units had surpassed capacity, forcing authorities to transfer infected patients to hospitals in other states.
Last month, the city implemented some restrictions on the economy for two weeks, but Bolsonaro attributed Chapeco's recent success to the use of early treatment protocols, newspaper Estadão reported.
Intensive care units in most Brazilian states have an occupation rate above 90%, though figures have been stable since the past week.
The Supreme Court is ruling today on the reopening of religious buildings nationwide. Many local authorities decided to ban large religious gatherings in spite of a federal government decision to label them as part of essential services.
South African variant
Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by the world's worst daily death toll and scrambling to make space for burials.
Scientists warned on Wednesday that yet another new variant could be emerging in Brazil's inland city of Belo Horizonte.
The Federal University of Minas Gerais said in a statement that two samples taken in the city included a previously unseen set of 18 mutations, including some in the same genes modified by the South African variant and Brazil's already prevalent variant, known as P.1.
The detection of additional variants adds to concerns that a brutal COVID-19 wave battering Brazil may keep breaking grim records for weeks to come.
Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, on Wednesday said it would begin opening some 600 new graves per day, well beyond the record of 426 burials in a day on March 30.
The city is also preparing plans for a "vertical cemetery," a crypt with 26,000 drawer-like graves that can be built in 90 days once approved.
The outbreak in South America's largest country may overtake the United States to become the world's deadliest, some medical experts predict.
The woman in Sao Paulo state now confirmed as infected by the South African virus variant was first identified by the Butantan biomedical institute as a possible case of a new local variant.
Further analysis confirmed it as the first known local case of the variant widely circulating in South Africa and elsewhere.
Scientists fear a showdown between the South African variant and Brazil's P.1 variant, both of which are more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus, worsening COVID-19 surges.
"It could be a huge duel," said Maria Carolina Sabbaga, one of Butantan's coordinators for studying new variants. "I think P.1 has already taken over. I'm not sure if the South African will overtake P.1, let's see."
José Patané, a Butantan researcher, said the variant most likely arrived in Brazil after travelling through Europe toward the end of 2020.
The first local diagnosis, a woman in her 30s in the city of Sorocaba, had not travelled abroad or come into contact with someone who did, indicating local community transmission, researchers said.