Brazil Scientists See Signs of New Virus Mutations Amid Outbreak

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil researchers are warning that a new coronavirus strain spotted just days ago could be aggravating an outbreak in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon rain-forest.

Experts are willing to infer the surge in cases that’s left Manaus hospitals without available beds and oxygen is tied to the new strain, but haven’t yet been able to confirm the suspicion. While the variant seems to be more transmissible, a half a dozen researchers say there aren’t enough studies yet to say it’s responsible for the faster spread, and no evidence on whether it causes a more severe form of the Covid-19.

“We suspect it’s more transmissible, based on data we have from the strains in the U.K. and South Africa,” said Felipe Naveca, a researcher at Fiocruz Amazonia that helped sequence the virus’s genome. “But the Manaus variant has many more mutations than the others.”

On Friday, Fiocruz confirmed a case of reinfection by a new strain: A 29-year-old woman who had been diagnosed for the first time in March and received a second coronavirus diagnosis on Dec. 30.

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The new variant hasn’t yet been found in other areas of Brazil, though researchers see it only a matter of time. It was first detected in Japan on four people returning from Manaus last weekend.

Immunity Doubts

Brazilian scientists have also found strains in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul. Fernando Spilki, a virology professor who’s been working on an initiative to sequence virus genomes, says there have been “three or four” new variants detected in Brazil. The worry is that different lineages are showing similar mutations -- some of which can lead it to evade antibodies people may already have against another strain.

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“It’s like they are all evolving at the same time, and in the same way, even if they are not directly related to each other,” he said. “That can mean we have a high number of cases even in populations that already have immunity.”

There’s also no information yet on whether existing vaccines will work against the new strain. Brazil, which hasn’t started vaccinating, has bet on two shots: Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s CoronaVac and the booster from AstraZeneca/Oxford. Health regulator Anvisa has a meeting on Sunday to decide on emergency use requests for both.

“The faster you vaccinate, the less the virus mutates,” said Bergmann Morais Ribeiro, an expert at virus molecular biology who helped sequence the virus’s genome. “You lower the chances of having a virus appear that’s really worrying, that makes the disease more severe.”

Vaccine Debacle

If cleared by Anvisa, it would take between three to five days to deploy the vaccines to states -- the government has said it plans to start immunizing Brazil’s 210 million people next week. The South American nation has the second-most deaths and third-most infections from coronavirus globally.

For now, the only shot available in the country is CoronaVac. President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday that the government’s plan to import 2 million doses of the Astra booster from India to speed up vaccinations has been delayed by several days, Valor Economico newspaper reported, citing a TV interview.

No Oxygen

Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, is collapsing under the pressure of the second wave of the virus. Cases and deaths have soared to levels last seen in May. The state has begun to airlift patients to other states amid reports of patients dying of asphyxia.

The health ministry said Friday it’s hiring 2,500 health-care professionals to help Manaus, and got enough oxygen to sustain 61 premature babies who are in ICU beds in the city for the next 48 hours.

State governor Wilson Lima said demand for oxygen has far outpaced what was seen in 2020, skyrocketing to 75.000 cubic meters from 15.000 to in only 10 days and rendering preparations useless. Amazonas still needs to transfer at least 400 patients to other states to control the shortage, he said. Boats and trucks are expected to arrive with oxygen cylinders in the next 24 hours.

The rainy season in the Amazon rain-forest, which begins in November, increases respiratory diseases, Naveca said. But experts blame something else too: an abandoning of social distancing measures.

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“Social distancing and other individual protection measures were abandoned when officials loosened rules, allowing activities to resume,” said Bernardino Albuquerque, an infectious disease expert and professor at Amazonas Federal University. “When they backtracked in December, it was too late. It was already out of control, and that’s what we are seeing in January too.”

On Thursday, officials imposed a 7 a.m. curfew and suspended public transportation on roads and rivers to contain the spread of the disease. While Lima says the situation is still very serious, the local government has ruled out lockdowns.

“There are restriction measures to avoid social contact, but if measures are too extreme, they can have the opposite effect,” he said.