Brazil‘s new strain of coronavirus is ripping through the Amazon where tearful locals wait desperately for dwindling oxygen supplies to keep their relatives alive and doctors face the wretched task of deciding who can breathe.
At one hospital in Manaus, a despairing relative carried an oxygen tank for his own mother-in-law just to help her breathe for another two hours – with one expert describing the city as a ‘suffocation chamber’.
Infections have soared to record levels in Brazil after a new variant of the virus, which is thought to be more infectious than previous strains, was detected – with Manaus at its epicentre.
The variant was uncovered in three travellers in Japan who had recently visited Amazonas state, and has spooked UK ministers into shutting down travel from the whole of South America and Portugal to stop it from spreading.
Britain is already suffering record-high cases and deaths after the emergence of another more-infectious variant, which emerged in Kent. UK virologists have also revealed the Brazilian variant is further divided into two ‘types’ – the one in Manaus and another that is causing cases to spike elsewhere in Brazil, and which is already in Britain.
A third and potentially more-infectious variant of Covid has also been found in South Africa.
In Manaus, whose mass graves became a symbol of the first wave of the pandemic in Brazil, cemeteries are again burying record number of patients as the new strain causes a total ‘collapse’ of the healthcare system.
The crisis in Manaus is particularly worrying because it was thought the city had acquired natural herd immunity to the virus during the first wave, with scientists estimating that up to 70 per cent of people were infected.
But with so many new infections now occurring, it means either the estimates were badly wrong or the new variant is able to evade immunity acquired from earlier infections – potentially rendering vaccines useless.
In the latest outbreak, hundreds of patients are being airlifted to other states while some non-Covid sufferers are being evicted from their beds to make way for those in greater need.
Doctors and relatives have described ‘nightmare’ scenes of medical workers breaking down in tears. And with nearly 500 people still waiting for beds in Manaus, some elderly virus sufferers are being left to die at home.
Heartbreaking: Relatives of patients being treated at the 28 de Agosto hospital in Manaus share a tearful hug as the healthcare system in the Amazon’s largest city faces ‘collapse’ and a dire shortage of oxygen
Emergency: Healthcare workers transport a 77-year-old patient on a stretcher at a Manaus hospital after he came down with coronavirus symptoms, as a new strain which is feared to be more contagious spreads across the Amazon
Overwhelmed: Gravediggers wearing green and yellow hazmat suits bury a foil-wrapped coffin at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, with mourning relatives having to queue to bury their dead
A municipal healthcare worker covers the body of an 84-year-old Brazilian who died at home during the deadly outbreak
An oxygen cylinder is wheeled into the Getulio Vargas hospital amid drastic shortages of the substance needed to treat coronavirus patients suffering breathing problems
Cases in Brazil, which was among the hardest-hit countries in the world during the first wave of infection, have now soared even higher during a second wave driven by the emergence of a new variant – with 360,000 reported in the last week alone
The number of deaths per day in Brazil is also on-par with the country’s first wave, but it is thought the numbers will get worse in the coming weeks due to a lag between infections increasing and the corresponding increase in deaths
There are growing concerns over mutated variants spreading rapidly across the world, including mutants in Britain, South Africa and the United States, with scientists concerned over how they might dent the efficacy of the vaccines.
The World Health Organization says that coronavirus infections have spiked by 33.8 percent in two months, leading to ever more mutations as the disease has more chances to evolve.
British scientists believe the Brazilian mutation may have spread to the UK months ago – and that there are actually two variations of it – sharing a similar alteration in their spike protein which makes them more infectious.
Brazilian COVID strain is in the UK: Variant that is feared could reinfect Covid survivors IS already in the country, top scientist confirms – as she reveals there are TWO types of it
Professor Wendy Barclay, who is head of a new Government-led research unit studying Covid mutations, said the Brazilian strain was probably introduced to the UK ‘some time ago’.
The Imperial College London virologist revealed the strain spotted in the UK is not the strain that emerged in the Brazilian city of Manaus and was first detected in people traveling to Japan.
Instead, it is a very similar variant that scientists believe is causing cases to skyrocket nationally in Brazil. Both strains share a mutation on their spike proteins which make them more infectious and may help them get past immunity from vaccines and older versions of the virus.
It’s not clear yet when the first case of the Brazilian variant was spotted in the UK, but MailOnline understands it could have been as far back as November.
Professor Barclay told a briefing this morning: ‘There are two different types of Brazilian variants. One of them has been detected [in the UK] and one of them has not.
‘In the databases, if you search the sequences, you will see that there is some evidence for variants from around the world, and I believe including the Brazilian one, which probably was introduced some time ago.’
Later in the afternoon, she clarified that it was not the strain ravaging Manaus, adding: ‘Other variants that may have originated from Brazil have been previously found [in the UK].’
Britain faces even MORE super-Covid variants: Global surge of cases is fueling more chances for the virus to mutate to beat immune system and vaccines, scientists warn
More than 90 million Covid-19 cases have been recorded worldwide since the pandemic began, with numbers surging 33.8 per cent in the last two months alone.
And the spiralling cases will only trigger more mutations because it gives the virus more opportunity to evolve.
Mutations could render vaccines useless, experts fear.
Number 10’s top scientists believe the current crop of jabs will still work against any of the recently-spotted variants – but may be slightly less effective.
Britain has already been hit by two highly-infectious variants, including one that first emerged in Kent and another that was brought in from South Africa.
Fears are also growing about a new Brazilian variant, which has yet to be spotted in the UK.
The Kent variant – called B.1.1.7 – quickly became the most dominant coronavirus in the UK, and its rapid spread spooked ministers into a national lockdown.
Thirty-six cases of a second super-strain from South Africa – named B.1.351 – have also been spotted in Britain.
While the US, which has battled against the most cases during the pandemic, has revealed its labs have identified three home-grown variants of the virus.
Yet another strain has also been identified by labs working in Brazil, amid spiralling infections across the country.
Scientists fear the mutations could dodge immunity sparked by vaccines.
There is no evidence to suggest that any of the variants are more deadly but they will still trigger more fatalities because they will likely infect more people.
As the oxygen crisis in Brazil mounts, health minister Eduardo Pazuello said a plane full of medical supplies would arrive on Friday, followed by four others, but it was not clear whether this would be enough to fill the gap.
The city has ‘run out of oxygen and some health centers have become a type of suffocation chamber,’ said Jessem Orellana from the Fiocruz-Amazonia scientific investigation institute.
The oxygen provider in Manaus, White Martins, said it was considering diverting some of its supply from neighbouring Venezuela – while military personnel delivered 400 oxygen cylinders to Amazonas in five days.
At the Hospital Universitario Getulio Vargas, health workers took empty cylinders to the oxygen provider in the hope there would be some to retrieve.
Patients waited anxiously in the hospital as oxygen arrived in time to save some, but too late for others. In echoes of the worst days of the crisis in Europe, doctors were having to decide which patients to treat.
‘Yes, there is a collapse in the health care system in Manaus,’ the health minister said. ‘The line for beds is growing by a lot – we have 480 people waiting now. ‘We are starting to remove patients with less serious [conditions] to reduce the impact.’
Harrowing accounts were emerging of patients who died with no oxygen, with one grieving relative telling Globo: ‘You have no idea what it was like… the shouting, people were dying. Even health professionals, everyone was crying.’
‘The oxygen stopped, the patients were dying on the stretchers and the nurses did not know what to do,’ another relative said.
The new variant, described by the WHO as ‘worrying’, is feared to be more contagious and to have spread throughout Brazil and possibly further – with Britain shutting down travel from South America on Thursday.
In a move that prompted consternation in Portugal, transport secretary Grant Shapps said travel from the EU nation would also be halted because of its links with Brazil, although there are exemptions for truck drivers.
Cases in Brazil are at their highest level ever, with more than 360,000 in the last week alone, while the daily death rate is hovering around 1,000 for the first time since the first wave peaked in the Southern Hemisphere winter.
At least one cemetery in Manaus, a city of 2.2million people, had mourners queuing up to enter and bury their dead, with Brazilian artists and football teams joining the cry for help.
According to official figures, Manaus on Wednesday saw a fourth straight day of record burials – 198, with 87 of them deaths from Covid-19.
Hospitals in Manaus admitted few new Covid-19 patients on Thursday, suggesting many will suffer from the disease at home, and some will likely die.
Park of the Tribes, a community of more than 2,500 indigenous people on the outskirts of Manaus, went more than two months without any resident showing Covid-19 symptoms.
In the past week, 29 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, said Vanda Ortega, a volunteer nurse in the community. Two went to urgent care units, but no one yet has required hospitalization.
‘We’re really very worried,’ said Ortega, who belongs to the Witoto ethnicity. ‘It’s chaos here in Manaus. There isn’t oxygen for anyone.’
The crisis has prompted the government in Amazonas to transport 235 patients who depend on oxygen to five other states and the federal capital Brasilia.
‘I want to thank those governors who are giving us their hand in a human gesture,’ Amazonas governor Wilson Lima said at a news conference on Thursday.
‘All of the world looks at us when there is a problem [with] the Earth’s lungs,’ he said, using a poetic term for the Amazon. ‘Now we are asking for help. Our people need this oxygen.’
Governors and mayors throughout the country offered help amid a flood of social media videos in which distraught relatives of Covid-19 patients in Manaus begged for people to buy them oxygen.
Amazonas authorities have even appealed to the United States to send a military transport plane to Manaus with oxygen cylinders, a Brazilian congressman said.
But there are growing demands Brazil’s federal government to do more, with president Jair Bolsonaro under pressure to act after long downplaying the dangers of Covid-19.
Federal prosecutors in Manaus have asked a local judge to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to step up its support, saying that an air force plane for oxygen transportation ‘needs repair, which brought a halt to the emergency influx’.
Local authorities recently called on the federal government to reinforce Manaus’ stock of oxygen, while the air force said it was deploying two planes to transport patients.
During the first wave of the crisis, Manaus consumed a maximum 30,000 cubic metres of oxygen per day, but now the need has more than doubled to nearly 70,000 cubic metres, according to White Martins.
‘Due to the strong impact of the Covid -19 pandemic, the consumption of oxygen in the city increased exponentially over the last few days in comparison with a volume that was already extremely high,’ White Martins said. ‘Demand is much higher than anything predictable and… continues to grow significantly.’
A woman is comforted outside a Manaus hospital as armed personnel keep order during a disastrous outbreak in the city
Medical workers wearing white hazmat suits examine the body of 53-year-old Shirlene Morais Costa, who died after suffering coroanvirus symptoms at home in Manaus
A tiny stretcher brings in a baby suspected of having Covid-19 at the HRAN hospital in the federal capital Brasilia on Thursday
Vitor Cabral comforts his wife Raissa Floriana after her father was hospitalised with Covid-19 at the 28 de Agosto hospital
The company added that Manaus’ remote location presents challenging logistics, requiring additional stocks to be transported by boat and by plane.
Governor Lima – once seen as an ally of Bolsonaro – has also decreed more health restrictions, including the suspension of public transport and a curfew between 7pm and 6am.
Lima said the state was ‘in the most critical moment of the pandemic’ as he announced the 10-day curfew beginning on Friday, saying that ‘we are in a war operation’.
‘Here there aren’t any empty beds left, any oxygen tanks, nothing – all we have left is faith,’ Manaus resident Luiza Castro said.
Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain often compared to Donald Trump, has raged against lockdowns and described the virus as a ‘little flu’, laughing off the dangers even when he himself was infected with the disease.
A woman cries during a protest outside the 28 Agosto hospital in Manaus, where authorities are planning to transport scores of patients to other states and the federal capital Brasilia
Cemetery workers carry the remains of 89-year-old Abilio Ribeiro, who died of the coronavirus, into a grave in Manaus
Military police officers patrol the streets in Manaus after a 7pm curfew was imposed to tackle the crisis in the Amazonian city
He has also flouted social distancing by appearing at rallies of his supporters, and touted the unproven anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19.
Felipe Naveca, an expert studying coronavirus mutations in Amazonas, said the new strain was ‘very probably’ more contagious than the original virus, just like new variants found in Britain and South Africa.
The worsening situation in Manaus was not due only to one variant, he added, warning that authorities were expecting a rise in virus cases due to end-of-year parties.
‘We need urgent support from the population to reduce the transmission and slow down the virus’s evolution,’ Naveca said.
A struggling patient is transported by medical workers at the Getulio Vargas hospital in Manaus where health workers have been taking empty cylinders to a local oxygen provider in the hope there would be some available
A man breaks down outside the 28 de Agosto hospital as Manaus faces a shortage of bed space and oxygen supplies
A man walks on an empty street in Manaus after the governor of Amazonas imposed the curfew to curb the infection rate
Experts worry new mutations could eventually show resistance to the vaccines developed to combat the original strain.
However, ‘right now there’s no evidence that this line prejudices the vaccine’s response,’ Naveca said, and Brazil aims to start its vaccination campaign sometime this month.
There is concern, though, the new variant could already have spread throughout Brazil, and it has been detected as far afield as Japan.
Brazil has had 8.3million confirmed infections and 207,000 deaths in total. The number of fatalities is second only to the United States.