Brazil finds first cause of South African variation, grave scarcity looms as death toll soars

SAO PAULO, (Reuters) – Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly infectious coronavirus variant found in South Africa, a fresh danger signal to a country already ravaged by the world’s worst daily death toll and scrambling to make way for burials.

Scientists warned yesterday that another new variant may be emerging in Brazil’s inland city, Belo Horizonte.

Federal University of Minas Gerais said in a statement that two samples taken in the city contained a set of 18 unprecedented mutations, including some in the same genes modified by the South African variant and an already widespread Brazilian variant , known as P.1.

Detecting additional variants adds to concerns that a cruel COVID-19 wave that beats Brazil could end up breaking serious records for weeks to come. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health reported a one-day record of 4,195 deaths, followed by another 3,829 deaths on Wednesday.

Yesterday Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city, said it would begin opening some 600 new graves a 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 after approval.

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 province who has now been confirmed as infected by the South African virus variant was first identified by the Butantan biomedical institute as a possible cause of a new local variant. Further analysis confirmed that this was the first known local cause of the variation circulating widely in South Africa and elsewhere.

Scientists fear a conflict between the variant in South Africa and the Brazilian P.1 variant, both of which are more infectious and potentially more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus, exacerbating COVID-19 surges.

“It could be a huge duel,” said Maria Carolina Sabbaga, one of Butantan’s coordinators for the study of new variants. “I think P.1 has already taken the lead. I’m not sure if South Africa will overtake P.1, let’s see. ”

The South African variation in studies appears to reduce protection against current vaccines.

José Patané, a researcher from Butantan, said the variant is most likely to reach Brazil after traveling through Europe towards the end of 2020.

The first local diagnosis, a woman in her 30s in the city of Sorocaba, had not traveled abroad or had contact with someone who did, citing a local community transfer, researchers said.

A possible surge of the South African variant could further complicate the introduction of the Brazilian slow vaccine.

Brazil’s COVID-19 immunization program is built around the vaccines by AstraZeneca Plc and Sinovac Biotech Ltd of China, which have proven effective against the Brazilian variant in preliminary studies, according to officials.

Research released yesterday showed that a Sinovac shot was 50% effective in stopping symptomatic COVID-19 in a study of nearly 68,000 health workers in Manaus, where the P.1 strain first emerged as the predominant variant. The results support the preliminary findings of a separate research reported by Reuters last month.

Immunizations have been slow to ramp up in Brazil after the government dragged its feet last year in procuring vaccines while other countries raced to secure supplies.

President Jair Bolsonaro has shifted his tone on vaccines, drawing shots he recently received in contempt. But the former right-wing army captain still opposes the demands of social distance and a mask that health experts consider essential to curb virus transmission.

Under pressure from business leaders desperate to vaccinate their workforces and reopen operations, the lower house of Congress approved a controversial bill to allow the private sector to buy a vaccine. After the lower house finished voting on amendments on Wednesday, the bill will now go to Parliament for consideration.

The proposal would allow businesses to procure vaccines to vaccinate their employees as long as they give the public health system the same number of shots. Under current rules, businesses could only do so after the country had vaccinated risk groups outlined in a national immunization plan.