SÃO PAULO – Researchers and doctors are sounding the alarm on the new, more aggressive strain of coronavirus from the Amazon region of Brazil, which they say is responsible for a recent increase in deaths in the country and infections among young people.
Brazil’s daily death toll from the disease peaked this week, pushing the country’s total death toll from Covid-19 to more than a quarter of a million. Neighboring Peru is struggling to stem a second wave of infections.
The new variant, known as P.1, is 1.4 to 2.2 times more contagious than versions of the virus previously found in Brazil, and 25% to 61% more able to re-infect people who had been infected. by an earlier strain, according to a study released Tuesday.
With mass vaccination far in the region, countries like Brazil risk becoming fertile ground for powerful new versions of the virus that could make current Covid-19 vaccines less effective, public health specialists have warned.
“We are facing a dramatic situation here – the health systems of many Brazilian states are already in ruins and more will be in the coming days,” said Eliseu Waldman, epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
Several doctors have reported an increase in the number of younger patients in their Covid-19 wards, many in their 30s and 40s with no underlying health issues. In Peru, some doctors said patients fell seriously ill faster, just three or four days after the first symptoms appeared, compared to an average of nine to 14 days last year.
“The virus behaves differently,” said Rosa Lopez, doctor in the intensive care unit at Guillermo Almenara Irigoyen Hospital in Lima. “It’s really aggressive… the situation is very difficult, really terrible.”
The Amazon strain, P.1, appeared in the Brazilian city of Manaus late last year and quickly gained the attention of Brazilian and international scientists who ran to map its spread. Of particular concern was the large number of mutations in the spike protein variant, which helps the virus enter cells.
However, researchers are still unsure why more younger people seem to get sick, and whether P.1 is more deadly or just more contagious.
“The recent epidemic in Manaus has put a strain on the city’s health system, resulting in inadequate access to medical care,” wrote the authors of the study on P.1 published on Tuesday, led by Nuno Faria, professor of virus evolution at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. “We therefore cannot determine whether the estimated increase in the relative mortality risk is due to the P.1 infection, the stresses on the Manaus health system, or both,” they wrote.
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A study by Brazilian scientists published last week showed that in some cases the P.1 strain carried a viral load about 10 times the initial versions of the virus that circulated in Brazil during most of the pandemic. But the group of international scientists led by Dr Faria concluded that it was not possible before conducting detailed clinical investigations to determine whether P.1 infection was associated with increased viral loads.
Researchers in South Africa grappled with the same questions when they studied another new variant, B.1.351. Doctors there also reported an increase in hospitalizations and deaths of younger patients, but the researchers concluded that more younger people were falling seriously ill because more people were infected overall. The likelihood of young people dying increased, they said, because hospitals were overwhelmed, not because the variant itself was deadlier.
—Luciana Magalhaes in São Paulo and Gabriele Steinhauser in Johannesburg contributed to this article.
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