By Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by the world’s highest daily death toll fueled by a widespread local variant.
Last week, scientists at the Butantan biomedical institute said the case, identified in a woman in Sao Paulo state, might be a new local variant. Further analysis confirmed it as the first known local case of the variant widely circulating in South Africa and elsewhere.
Scientists fear a showdown between the South African variant and the already rampant Brazilian variant, known as P.1, both of which are more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus and have led to accelerated COVID-19 surges.
“It could be a huge duel,” said Maria Carolina Sabbaga, one of Butantan’s coordinators for studying new variants. “I think P.1 has already taken over. I’m not sure if the South African will overtake P.1, let’s see.”
The South African variant in studies appears to lessen protection from current vaccines.
Brazil is in the midst of a brutal COVID-19 wave, setting records for deaths on a weekly basis. On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported a single-day record of 4,195 deaths.
The outbreak in South America’s largest country may overtake the United States to become the world’s deadliest, some medical experts predict.
José Patané, a Butantan researcher, said the South African variant most likely arrived in Brazil after traveling through Europe toward the end of 2020.
The first local diagnosis, a woman in her 30s in the city of Sorocaba, had not traveled abroad or come into contact with someone who did, indicating local community transmission, researchers said.
SLOW VACCINE ROLLOUT
A possible surge of the South African variant could further complicate Brazil’s slow vaccine rollout.
Brazil’s COVID-19 immunization program is built around the vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, which have proven effective against the Brazilian variant in preliminary studies, according to officials.
Research released on Wednesday showed the Sinovac shot was 50% effective at preventing 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 preliminary findings of separate research reported by Reuters last month.
In studies, the South African variant appears to lower the level of protection offered by the AstraZeneca shot and other available vaccines.
Immunizations have been slow to ramp up in Brazil after the government dragged its feet last year in acquiring vaccines while other countries raced to secure supplies.
President Jair Bolsonaro has shifted his tone on vaccines, touting shots he had until recently disdained. But the far-right former army captain continues to oppose social distancing and mask requirements that health experts see as essential for curbing virus transmission.
Under pressure from business leaders desperate to vaccinate their workforces and reopen operations, the lower house of Congress has taken up a controversial bill to allow private-sector vaccine purchases.
A version of the bill, first passed on Tuesday, would allow businesses to acquire vaccines to inoculate their employees as long as they donate the same number of shots to the public health system. Under current rules, businesses could only do that once the country has fully vaccinated risk groups outlined in a national immunization plan.
Proposed amendments to new legislation are still pending in the lower house before the bill goes to the Senate.
Bolsonaro is set to meet with a group of business leaders including BTG Pactual founder Andre Esteves and Banco Bradesco Chairman Luiz Carlos Trabuco Cappi later on Wednesday, local media reported, with the private vaccine dose plan among the items on the agenda.
(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Bill Berkrot)