Brazil Covid: Health system near collapse as cases and deaths soar

Brazil’s health system is on the verge of collapse as cases and deaths soar to record levels driven by immunity-busting strain of Covid that is spreading abroad, health officials say

  • Brazil’s health system on the verge of collapse, top disease institute has warned 
  • Intensive care units in 25 out of 27 state capitals are more than 80 per cent full, experts said, while two are over capacity with the situation due to get worse  
  • Brazil cases and deaths have soared to record levels, driven by mutant P1 strain
  • Variant is more infectious and can reinfect those who have already had the virus, raising fears it could make vaccines less effective as it spreads internationally  

Brazil’s health system is on the verge of collapse with Covid cases and deaths soaring to record levels, driven by an immunity-busting variant of the disease that is now spreading internationally. 

Intensive care units in 25 of Brazil’s 27 capital cities are more than 80 per cent full, health officials warned Tuesday, with the situation set to get worse. 

Fifteen state capitals, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero and the national capital Brasilia, have ICU’s which are 90 per cent full, a report by the Fiocruz institute warned, with Porto Alegre and Campo Grande already exceeding capacity.

It said the figures point to ‘the overload and even collapse of health systems’ and urged leaders to expand measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing to bring cases down.

Fiocruz published its report as Brazil reported a record number of Covid deaths on Tuesday at 1,972 – slightly above its previous one-day record of 1,910 on March 3.

Brazil’s health system is on the verge of collapse with ICUs in 25 out of 27 state capitals above 80 per cent capacity as Covid cases soar due to more-infectious variant, experts warn

Brazil’s death rate is also well above its first-wave peak with health officials saying it will climb further if space in hospitals for critically ill patients runs out

The variant of coronavirus that has brought Brazil’s health system to its knees is spreading internationally, with cases detected in the US, UK, Australia and western Europe (pictured) 

Brazil was one of the world’s hardest-hit countries during the first wave of the pandemic, leading some experts to predict that it would fare better during its second wave due to herd immunity that had built up.

But the emergence of a new variant – dubbed P1 – has instead driven cases and deaths to record highs because it is more infectious than previous strains and is able to reinfect people who have already had the disease.

That means the variant is able to bypass at least some of the body’s immune defences and has raised fears that current vaccines may be less effective against it – though data has not yet confirmed those fears.

The P1 variant is now responsible for a majority of cases in most Bazilian states, according to observers, and is spreading overseas – with cases detected in the US, UK and several western European countries. 

‘This means an accelerated phase of the epidemic. A disaster,’ Dr Roberto Kraenkel, a biological mathematician with the Covid-19 Brazil Observatory, warned The Washington Post. 

Epidemiologist Jesem Orellana, from Brazil’s Fiocruz institute, added: ‘The fight against Covid-19 was lost in 2020 and there is not the slightest chance of reversing this tragic circumstance in the first half of 2021.

‘The best we can do is hope for the miracle of mass vaccination or a radical change in the management of the pandemic.

‘Today, Brazil is a threat to humanity and an open-air laboratory where impunity in management seems to be the rule.’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, has urged Brazil to take aggressive steps against the virus – warning it could affect its neighbors and beyond if it doesn’t take the disease seriously. 

Brazil’s vaccine drive has been among the world’s slowest after President Jair Bolsonaro, who has said he will not take a jab himself, left it up to states to procure their own doses.

He has also publicly shunned mask wearing, social distancing, and lockdown rules, telling Brazilians last week to ‘stop crying’ and learn to live with the virus.

Just 8.6million Brazilians, or four per cent of the population, have received a first dose of vaccine, with just 3million getting a second dose.

That is just slightly behind the EU, whose own much-maligned vaccine drive has managed to reach 6 per cent of the population.

Brazil is largely relying on China’s CoronaVac for its doses, though are also using some Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs.  

Brazil’s vaccine drive is among the world’s slowest, after President Bolsonaro shunned the need for jabs early on and said he would refuse to get one (file image, vaccination in Brazil) 

The Ministry of Health has also warned that the vaccine drive is likely to be interrupted by a lack of jabs. 

The government has been pressing vaccine-maker Pfizer for early delivery of its coronavirus jabs, in the hopes of speeding up the roll-out – with Bolsonaro personally taking part in a call with the company. 

The government is also seeking out more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from other countries, a state governor told journalists, after Brazil’s health minister said that India had halted a shipment of 8 million doses.

The AstraZeneca shot, along with a vaccine made by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, have been Brazil’s strongest bet against a surging outbreak, with the homegrown P1 variant of the coronavirus apparently boosting transmission and reinfection.

Record COVID 19 deaths have been reported in Brazil over the past week and its hospital system is on the bring of collapse, prompting warnings from the World Health Organization about possible regional spillover and causing renewed lockdown measures in much of the country.

Preliminary studies suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine will protect against the P1 variant, Mauricio Zuma, the head of production at Brazil’s Fiocruz biomedical institute, said on Monday, confirming a Reuters report on Friday.

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly shunned mask-wearing rules, railed against lockdown, and last week told Brazilians to ‘stop crying’ and get used to living with the virus

A Brazilian study also indicates that the Sinovac shot is effective against the P1 variant, a source familiar with the study told Reuters on Monday.

If final results bear out those findings, it will be a crucial break for Brazil, which has ordered more than 200 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Sinovac shots, while dragging its feet on others.

Less than 4 per cent of Brazil’s 210 million residents have been inoculated against COVID-19 due to a string of missteps by the Health Ministry, which Bolsonaro has stocked with military men with little public health experience.

As early as August, the ministry passed up a chance to order 70 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech , with delivery starting in December, Pfizer said in a January statement.

Although Brazil has still not signed a contract with Pfizer, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said that after Bolsonaro’s call the company had agreed to start delivering 14 million doses by June, up from 9 million in its prior offer.

Following those early deliveries, Pfizer agreed to ship at least 10 million more doses per month, a health ministry official added, without saying the total size of the order.

Last week the government said it intended to buy 100 million doses from Pfizer and 38 million from Janssen, the pharmaceutical unit of Johnson & Johnson.

Guedes said Bolsonaro was also scheduled to speak with the head of Janssen.

‘Mass vaccination is the government’s number one priority,’ Guedes said. ‘We are going to vaccinate and keep the economy moving.’

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