Brazil Is Becoming A Hotbed For COVID-19 Supervariants, Experts Warn

Illustration of SARS-CoV-2. Red-Diamond/Shutterstock.com

While nations all over the world have introduced hard lockdowns, mask mandates, and invested heavily in vaccine rollouts, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration have let COVID-19 run rampant. Case numbers soared to the point the government stopped counting, and concerning new variants have emerged from the freely-replicating virus. 

Now, virologists are warning that Brazil may not just be harming its own population, but may also pose a threat to the rest of the world by creating superpotent variants of COVID-19.  

Brazil has the second-highest global COVID death toll, after the US. So far 268,370 people have died and over 11.1 million cases have been reported. This is almost solely due to Bolsonaro consistently undermining any anti-COVID-19 efforts, including preventing the state from enforcing lockdowns and withholding vital information from the public. His stance on the situation is ironic, considering he himself caught the virus in summer 2020, though he downplayed its severity and swore not to get the vaccine.  

However, within every new COVID-19 case, there is a fresh opportunity for the virus to replicate and mutate. This has been seen throughout the pandemic – new variants have cropped up in high case-number areas, with the UK variant and South African variant being a significant cause for concern in recent months. 

Perhaps the most concerning variant is that of the P1 variant, originating in Brazil. After its emergence in Brazil, P1 rapidly outcompeted the predominant variant at the time, placing itself firmly on scientists’ watch list. P1 is estimated to be anywhere from 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than strains before it, and could even reinfect people that have previously had other forms of COVID-19. 

“If vaccine antibodies are introduced while the [P1 strain] is replicating inside the body, the virus could replicate in such a way to evade the antibodies being produced,” Dr Julian Tang, virologist at the University of Leicester, told BBC News Brasil.  

“This means you might still be infected by the original strain or by the P1 variant.” 

Despite appearing just a few months ago, P1 is now the most prevalent variant in its city of origin, Manaus. This led to a rapid resurgence of cases in the area, which came as a surprise considering many people in the city had immunity against COVID-19 owing to previous infection. There is a number of theories as to why this occurred, one of which is P1’s possible ability to avoid immunity. 

"Without control measures, P1 will quickly become the dominant virus and generate significant epidemic waves," explained Charlie Whittaker, a researcher at Imperial College London, speaking to BBC News Brasil.

P1, and variants like it, provide a warning for the danger of letting COVID-19 spiral. With a total of 117.6 million cases worldwide since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has already caused lasting damage for almost every nation on Earth. The vaccines provide hope, but that will only work with collaboration from every world leader.

[H/T: BBC News Brasil]

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