Researchers have said that while the new strain is more transmissible, there is no evidence it has an increased risk of causing severe infections.

A family member watches as public funeral service workers remove the body of 94-year-old woman who died from complications related to Covid-19 in her home, in Manaus on January 22, 2021.
A family member watches as public funeral service workers remove the body of 94-year-old woman who died from complications related to Covid-19 in her home, in Manaus on January 22, 2021. (AP)

A coronavirus variant, known as P.1 or the Brazilian variant, has been rapidly spreading in the Amazon. 

Here is what we know so far about the variant which may be three times more contagious than its parent strain.

This variant of Covid-19 was first detected in Japan in a group of Brazilian travellers last month but has since caused a severe second wave of infections in Brazil's Manaus city.

According to genome sequencing data, the virus strain was detected in 91 percent of the Amazon's Covid-19 cases in January, reports France 24.

Felipe Naveca, a virologist at the ILMD/Fiocruz Amazonia biomedical research centre says the figure is up from "51 percent of cases sequenced in December and none in November."

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Spike protein

The P.1 variant has many mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus which attaches to human cells, reports News Medical.

"This spike protein is found on the surface of the virus and binds to receptors in human cells. Mutations in this region in general can alter the behaviour of viruses, increasing their transmissibility," researcher Esther Sabino told the news site.

Similar to the South African variant, it has the spike protein mutations N501Y, E484K and K417N, reports The Scientist.

Between December 15-23, Sabino's team of researchers at the Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE) examined 31 samples of Covid-19.

Thirteen out of the sample set "exhibited the P.1 variant," which is still in preprint phase and published on Virological.org.

Currently the CADDE team has "shared samples of the virus with other laboratories" and is developing methods to detect the variant quicker in Covid-19 tests, according to News Medical.

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Severity of the strain

Researchers have said that while the new strain is more transmissible, there is no evidence it has an increased risk of causing severe infections.

"While the new variant may increase the number of re-infections, there’s no evidence that it causes new infections to be more severe," genetics expert Renato Aguiar told News Medical.

“The severity of and mortality [rate] from Covid-19 has no direct connection with mutations – it has much more to do with characteristics of hosts,” in this case, humans, he added.

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Manaus outbreak

Earlier this month Brazil's prosecutor general opened a preliminary investigation into its president and health minister for possible negligence in response to the Manaus city outbreak.

Manaus has been hit hard by a brutal second wave of virus infection that has pushed its emergency services to their breaking point. 

The city ran out of oxygen in January, prompting the federal government to fly in tanks from across the country in an attempt to save people from suffocating to death.

Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello sought to reassure lawmakers that the surge of recent months was unexpected but coming under control.

He also told a Senate hearing that Brazil would vaccinate half its eligible population by June and the rest by the end of the year – an ambitious target as the country has barely guaranteed doses for half the population.

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Vaccine still effective

Brazil began immunisations with vaccines made by Sinovac Biotech and AstraZeneca about three weeks ago. 

Pazuello did not explain how their effectiveness against the Manaus variant was analysed.

"Thank God, we had clear news from the analysis that the vaccines still have an effect against this variant," Pazuello said.

The Health Ministry, which has not provided information about any such analysis, did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

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Global spread

The P.1 variant has already been spotted across Europe, Japan, Canada, Colombia and the United States.

Health authorities in Toronto announced earlier this month that a resident had been diagnosed with the variant, marking Canada's first known case of the mutated virus.

The patient was hospitalised, Toronto Public Health (TPH) said in a statement. He had recently traveled from Brazil.

Shortly after Switzerland and Turkey announced their first case of the variant as well.

The Butantan institute in Sao Paulo, which has partnered with Sinovac to test and produce the Chinese vaccine, said in a statement that it had begun studies regarding the Manaus variant but would not have a conclusion for two weeks.

The Fiocruz biomedical center in Rio de Janeiro, which has partnered with AstraZeneca to fill and finish doses of its vaccine developed with Oxford University, said it is studying its efficacy against the Amazon variant, sent samples to Oxford and is awaiting results.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies