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Brazil’s Covid deaths soar back to their first wave peak of over 1,000 a day amid new strain

Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak is surging again after another new and possibly more infectious strain of the virus was identified in the country. 

Daily deaths in the country rose back over 1,000 per day this week, around the same level as during the country’s first wave this spring, after finally bringing down the curves of infections and deaths last year.  

This week the country registered its highest daily average of Covid infections since the start of the pandemic, with 54,784 confirmed cases on average per day – up 51 per cent on two weeks ago. 

Brazil has also average 993 deaths per day this week, a rise of 49 per cent compared to two weeks ago. 

The alarming surge in deaths is being blamed on another new strain of coronavirus that has been identified after mutating in the Amazon rainforest city of Manaus.

It is the third new strain of coronavirus that has caused global alarm, after two  new variant caused deaths and infections to soar in South Africa and Britain.

Brazil has suffered another blow as the country's Covid-19 deaths have soared back to their first wave peak of over 1,000 a day, cementing its place as a new epicentre for the virus

Brazil has suffered another blow as the country’s Covid-19 deaths have soared back to their first wave peak of over 1,000 a day, cementing its place as a new epicentre for the virus

The death toll is creeping higher - with 1,110 Covid-19 victims being recorded on Tuesday. Pictured: Workers bury a victim of Covid-10 while relatives look on from a distance in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil

The death toll is creeping higher – with 1,110 Covid-19 victims being recorded on Tuesday. Pictured: Workers bury a victim of Covid-10 while relatives look on from a distance in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil

In Manaus, northwestern Brazil, where there were haunting scenes last April of mass graves and corpses piled in refrigerator trucks, the health system is near to collapse again. Pictured: Cemetery workers carry the remains of 89-year-old Abilio Ribeiro, who died of the new coronavirus strain in Manaus on January 6

In Manaus, northwestern Brazil, where there were haunting scenes last April of mass graves and corpses piled in refrigerator trucks, the health system is near to collapse again. Pictured: Cemetery workers carry the remains of 89-year-old Abilio Ribeiro, who died of the new coronavirus strain in Manaus on January 6

The South American country recorded 1,274 new deaths and a shocking 60,899 new confirmed cases in a day (pictured), the health ministry said on Wednesday

The South American country recorded 1,274 new deaths and a shocking 60,899 new confirmed cases in a day (pictured), the health ministry said on Wednesday

The mutated variant of Covid was discovered in Tokyo, Japan last week in four people who had arrived on a flight from Manaus, a city in the northwestern state of Amazonas. 

In Manaus, where there were scenes last April of mass graves and corpses piled in refrigerator trucks, the health system is near to collapse again amid  the second wave.

So many were infected in the city of two million people during the first wave of the pandemic last year that some scientists thought that the city might have been approaching herd immunity. But that projection has proved well wide of the mark.

And the absence of herd immunity in Manaus could be caused by one of two factors – either the infection estimates were wrong first time around or the new variant can reinfect people who have already survived coronavirus. 

That would also have worrying implications for the prospects of the strain having an ability to resist existing vaccines.  

Manaus, where the new mutation detected in Japan is believed to have originated, has been placed in a state of emergency for six months as hospitalisations passed the levels seen in the worst days of last year.   

Hospitals this week ran out of oxygen, with new supplies having to be flown in by Brazilian Air Force jets.  

Refrigerator trucks have once again been deployed to store bodies, while structures to hold 22,000 coffins in horizontal ‘drawers’ are hastily being constructed. 

Manaus registered more hospitalisations in the first week of 2021 than in the whole month of December, with a record 1,524 people admitted to hospital last Saturday alone. The city has also registered more than 100 burials every day this week, with a record 144 on Sunday alone – the highest number since the start of the pandemic. 

Manaus, where the new mutation detected in Japan is believed to have originated, has been placed in a state of emergency for six months as hospitalisations passed the levels seen in the worst days of last year. Pictured: A gravedigger works at Parque Taruma cemetary in Manaus

Manaus, where the new mutation detected in Japan is believed to have originated, has been placed in a state of emergency for six months as hospitalisations passed the levels seen in the worst days of last year. Pictured: A gravedigger works at Parque Taruma cemetary in Manaus

The state of Amazonas, where nearly 6,000 people have died from Covid-19, is struggling to cope with the rising number of deaths.     

Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in the state reached an occupancy rate of over 98% this week, according to data from the Amazonas state health department. Occupancy in temporary facilities that provide assistance to critical patients for later referral to other points of the health network was at 131 per cent.  

A court on Saturday forced the state government to shut non-essential businesses for 15 days as infections and deaths surge.

Scientists have said that the strain that has come from the Amazon has similarities to those of the highly contagious variants found in England and South Africa

Namely, it has a genetic mutation called N501Y, which changes the shape of the spike proteins found on the outside of the virus. 

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Britain, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Britain, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread 

The mutation makes Covid more able to latch onto the receptors inside the body that it targets, meaning it makes it past the body’s natural defences more often.

People who are exposed to the virus therefore become infected more often than they would if the other person was infected with an older, less contagious strain. However, there is no evidence to suggest the mutation makes the virus more deadly. 

A World Health Organization report on the variant last week said: ‘The variant was identified when whole-genome sequencing was conducted on samples from 4 travellers from Brazil who were tested at the airport.

‘Through our regional offices, we are working with both Japanese and Brazilian authorities to evaluate the significance of these findings. 

This new variant (shown in light green) was first spotted in Brazil in October and accounted for a growing share of infections there in November

This new variant (shown in light green) was first spotted in Brazil in October and accounted for a growing share of infections there in November 

‘We are also working with our Viral Evolution Working Group to assess the significance of this, and if this variant as well as others identified in recent months result in changes in transmissibility, clinical presentation or severity, or if they impact on countermeasures, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. 

‘The same comprehensive approach to controlling Covid-19 works against these variants. At an individual level, protective measures work for all identified variants: physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue.’  

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT? 

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.

Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn’t rule it out completely.

Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.

What do the mutations do?

The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious. 

Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. 

Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.

Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant. 

E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

Will our vaccines still protect us?

There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.

The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.

Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in  a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.

They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.

And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines. 

The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.

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The new variants from South Africa and Brazil have the world on edge because they may not respond as well to vaccines, but they are still relatively rare.  

A new variant in Brazil was first identified in Rio de Janeiro, the sprawling but densely populated city on the country’s seaside in October. 

At first, it was mostly isolated to the city, but already driving cases and infections  back again in the hard-hit city, which has seen 470,138 cases to-date. 

But, by December 23, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro researchers who discovered it were becoming concerned.  

‘The significant increase in the frequency of this lineage raises concerns about public health management and the need for genomic surveillance during the second wave of infections,’ they wrote. 

At the time, it was clear that the variant was becoming more common, but how exactly it differed an might be more dangerous wasn’t clear. 

But by December 26, the potential risks of its mutations were becoming clearer.  

It is too early on in the variant’s discovery for politicians or scientists to be confident about how the changes to the virus will affect outbreaks.

Lab testing suggests its N501Y mutation could make it more transmissible – the UK variant with the same change is estimated to be around 56 per cent more infectious, but other changes to the virus may affect this, too.

And another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, which is also on the spike protein, may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan said in its report that the people infected with the variant were found in airport screening in Tokyo on January 2.

They had travelled from Amazonas, a state in the north of Brazil which contains the city Manaus, home to two million people and the first place the variant was found.

The disease institute (NIID) said: ‘Information on the variant isolate is limited to viral genome sequence data. 

‘Further investigation is necessary to assess infectivity, pathogenicity, and impact on laboratory diagnosis and vaccine efficacy of this variant strain.

‘NIID recommends that persons infected with the variant isolate should be monitored in an isolated room and active epidemiological investigation should be initiated including contact tracing (with source investigation) and monitoring of the clinical course.’

Ministers and experts have said the repeated emergence of new variants is a warning sign that the coronavirus is evolving frequently and that some of the evolutions make significant changes to how the virus works.

Although the variants spotted already don’t seem to make the virus more deadly or have the ability to get past a vaccine, the more different variants there are, the more likely it is than one will have a mutation that spells disaster.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a virologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa, told The Telegraph: ‘This variant is a wake up call that we should try to really decrease transmission of SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus]. 

‘It is clear that if you leave it circulating, the virus has the ability to outsmart us and become better at transmission and evasion of the antibody response.’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today revealed officials are looking at ways to stop the variant from arriving in the UK. He told MPs: ‘We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant. 

‘We already have tough measures, as you know, to stop from new infections come from abroad. We are taking steps to do that in response to the Brazilian variation.’ 

Scientists working in Britain have not yet announced any coronavirus cases caused by the variant on UK soil, although it is likely widespread in Brazil already.  

The variant that emerged in Kent, now estimated to be around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor, has quickly become the dominant form of the virus in England and has led to the country’s longest lockdown since March 2020.

There is no evidence to suggest vaccines will be any less effective against this variant. Pfizer, maker of the first jab to be approved, tested theirs on the similar UK and South Africa variants and said it still worked just as well.     

American ‘super-covid’ is here: Ohio reports TWO homegrown coronavirus strains- including one that has become dominant in Columbus – as US shatters new daily death record with 4,300 fatalities 

The US now has its own homegrown ‘super-covid’ variants that are more infectious than the most common coronavirus types in the US – and the new variants are spreading like wildfire in at least one state, Ohio scientists revealed Wednesday. 

One of the new, more infectious variants has already become dominant in Columbus, Ohio, where it was discovered. This unique US variant has three mutations not seen in the others from the UK and South Africa. 

So far, this homegrown variant has been seen in about 20 samples since Ohio State University (OSU) scientists first detected it in December. It’s now present in most of the samples they are sequencing.  

A second variant has mutations identical to the UK variant’s, but arose completely independently on American soil, according to Ohio State University scientists. Just one person with this variant has been found. 

‘It has a variant backbone that is in common with the UK and South African variants,’ but is separate, said Dr Daniel Jones, one of the Ohio State University (OSU) scientists involved in the discovery of the variants. 

‘We are now in a period where the virus is changing quite substantially…so we are concerned,’ at least over the transmissibility, said Dr Jones.  

It comes after Dr Deborah Birx warned over the weekend that the patter of COVID-19 case spikes suggested the US could already have its own 50 percent more infectious ‘super-covid’ variant. 

Scientists are quite sure both American variants are more infectious, but don’t know yet whether they will be immune to vaccines. 

The Columbus variant is not currently thought to be deadlier, but scientists are ramping up their search for cases of it to monitor how sick people who catch it get.  

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As the British coronavirus variant occupies countries’ pandemic plans, other mutations to the Sars-CoV-2 are provoking concern among scientists who are scrambling to work out if they will still respond to vaccines.

In particular, one mutation, known as E484K, detected initially in South Africa and on subsequent variants in Brazil and Japan, has raised alarm among researchers.

Ravi Gupta, professor of microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it is this mutation – and not the British variant – that is ‘the most worrying of all’.

Although research into the new variant is limited, a Brazilian study this month looked at a patient who had recovered from Covid-19 only to become reinfected with the new, mutated strain.

The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed, but the authors found that the E484K mutation could be ‘associated with escape from neutralising antibodies’ – meaning it could bypass the body’s natural defence memory that bestows immunity.

As countries accelerate their vaccination programmes, there is concern that the new mutation may render certain vaccines less effective.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, for example, use mRNA technology to deliver instructions to the body to produce a harmless coronavirus spike protein, which the immune system then learns to kill in anticipation of a genuine infection.

With E484K, as with the British variant, the mutation occurs on the virus’ spike protein, which allows it to bind more easily with human cell receptors, potentially heightening its infectiousness.

Gupta said the mutation ‘could be the start of problems for spike vaccines’. ‘They should all be effective at the moment but we worry about further mutations occurring on top of these ones,’ he told AFP. 

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said last week that their vaccine was effective against the N501Y mutation found on the British virus variant, known as B117.

Francois Balloux, professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, said it was unlikely that the South African variant had mutated sufficiently to ‘bypass the protection provided by current vaccines’.

But, he warned: ‘The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps the virus Sars-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.’

There have been several mutations to the novel coronavirus since it emerged in late 2019, and most have had a negligible effect on its transmissibility or severity.

But the British variant has shown in several studies to be up to 70 percent more infectious than normal virus strains.

And the South African variant appears to be more effective at avoiding the body’s natural response. 

One pre-print study in December concluded that the two new variants show that Sars-CoV-2 ‘has the potential to escape an effective immune response’.

Researchers studied what happened to the virus when it was left in contact with plasma taken from a patient who had recovered from Covid-19.

Within three months, the virus had taken on several mutations, including E484K.

The authors suggested that ‘vaccines and antibodies able to control emerging variants should be developed.’

Lead researcher Rino Rappuoli, an immunologist at pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, told AFP that the current spike protein mutations should not pose a problem for existing vaccines, however.

And even if the virus mutates to better evade immune response, vaccines should bestow at least some level of effective immunity.

‘Even if you lower the efficacy, there would normally still be some neutralisation of the virus,’ Vincent Enouf, from Paris’s Pasteur Institute, told AFP.

To be on the safe side, Gupta advocated an accelerated vaccination programme, bestowing as much immunity as current vaccines can deliver ‘as fast as possible all over the world.’

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