BRAZIL has seen Covid deaths double as its hospitals run out of oxygen while a new strain of the deadly virus has been detected in the Amazon.
Health officials and scientists have suggested the mutation could be behind the surge over the last three weeks which has seen daily records set for cases and deaths.
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Hospitals in the country are being overwhelmed as Brazil has recorded the second highest death tally in the world with 205,000.
It is feared the new strain could be fueling the spread as Brazilian scientists believe the Covid mutation could increase the rate of transmission – like the variants detected in South Africa and the UK.
The variant is believed to have emerged in the northern jungle state of Amazonas.
Doctors and nurses have pleaded for help as hospitals are running out of oxygen and refrigerator trucks are wheeled in to store bodies.
Amazonas governor Wilson Lima said his state is facing its "most critical moment" of the pandemic as a 7pm curfew will be imposed from Friday.
Brazil has suffered during the pandemic with its leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, famously taking a flippant attitude to the virus – branding it "just a flu".
It is unclear how many cases and deaths are directly linked to the new mutation – but cases and deaths have all surged in the last three weeks.
Brazil has seen a horrific spike since Christmas as daily cases have almost tripled – with 22,967 detected on December 25, jumping to 68,656.
The country's record for cases was also hit on January 7, with 87,134 – almost 17,000 higher than its previous figures.
And on the same day it also recorded its all time high figures for deaths, with 1,455.
Deaths have also doubled over the same period, with 483 recorded at Christmas – rising to 1,151.
The 7-day moving average of cases has also gone from 40,664 to 52,063, while the same stat for deaths has gone from 690 to 952.
Medics have also seen the number of active cases go from a recent low of 638,966 on January 6 to 779,252 – just shy of the all time high of 806,206.
What is ‘Amazon Covid’?
The new strain was detected in Japan after four travellers returned from Brazil.
The mutation “emerged independently” from those detected in the UK and South Africa, according to virologist Professor Tulio de Oliveira.
He told the Telegraph initial analysis suggests all three variants share concerning characteristics linked to faster spread.
Prof de Oliveria, who is leading South Africa’s effort to understand the new strain , said: “We know that B.1.1.248 has one mutation that is shared with the variant in the UK and South Africa, and that's the mutation at position N501Y.
“This is one of the mutations that… is associated with fast transmission.”
Japan reported the mutation to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the country recorded a sharp rise in cases in recent weeks.
They have expanded their state of emergency to cover even more regions as the country records record numbers of infections.
The variant in Brazil has several mutations, including one called E484K, which is also found in the South African variant.
Speaking of the South African variant, Professor Francois Balloux, director of UCL Genetics Institute, said: "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."
But Prof Balloux said although it is possible the new variants will impact vaccines, "we shouldn’t make that assumption yet".
The good news is UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it would be “relatively easy” to adapt vaccines if needed to beat Amazon Covid.
"Amazon Covid" has put the world on alert after the mutation was first discovered by Japan in four travelers arriving from Brazil on January 4.
The UK announced all flights from South America will stop – but luckily the mutation, known as B.1.1.248 or P.1, has not yet been detected in Britain.
Brazil's state-run medical research lab, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, has said it believes the variant emerged between December 2020 and January 2021.
Studies of the mutation showed it "resembled the pattern observed" in other variants identified in the Britain and South Africa.
Scientists from the institution told Brazil's UOL website it is likely the mutations increase the rate of transmission.
And they said the variant is likely the reason behind a new surge of infections in Amazonas.
"Similar mutations have already been associated with increased Covid transmission rates, " said Brazilian researcher Felipe Naveco.
"It's a virus that has gone through a process of evolution, which makes us think that maybe it's a new Brazilian variant.
"These mutations are very worrying, and we need more time and analysis to really know how to might increase transmission."
He added the mutation "partly explains the explosion of cases here in Amazonas, where Covid is rampaging through both the populous capital and remote jungle towns".
Amazonas' state capital Manaus has been placed into a state of emergency for six months as hospitalisations surpassed their first wave highs.
Brazilian Air Force jets have been flying in oxygen to help support struggling hospitals.
Temporary morgues are also being erected to hold up to 22,000 coffins as a 100 burials are being registered every day in Manaus.
Doctors and nurses also trying to help keep patients alive through mechanical ventilation as hospitals become "suffocation chambers" due to a lack of oxygen.
Jesem Orellana, a local epidemiologist, told The Guardian: "This is an unprecedented calamity.
"In the coming hours Manaus is going to be the protagonist of one of the saddest chapters of the Covid-19 epidemic in the world.”
Orellana added: "A single human being is only capable of performing manual ventilation for about 20 minutes, so if you want to save one life without oxygen you are going to need at least three or four people per patient."
Health official Tatiana Amorim said the R value in Amazonas state was now 1.3 – and suggested the new variant could be to blame.
One medical worker can be seen pleading for help in a video which has gone viral amid chaos.
"We're in an awful state. Oxygen has simply run out across the whole unit today," she says in the clip.
"There is no oxygen and lots of people are dying.
"If anyone has any oxygen, please bring it to the clinic. There are so many people dying."
At a news conference, Governor Lima echoed her fears, as he appealed for help.
He said: "All of the world looks at us when there is a problem as the Earth's lungs. Now we are asking for help. Our people need this oxygen."
Lima – an ally of Covid-sceptic Bolsonaro – described the state as an "war footing" and said patients may be evacuated to receive treatment elsewhere.
Hospitals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have recently reported intensive care units more than 90 percent full as the virus surges.
It is feared the new strain may even have the potential evade vaccines or dodge any immunity developed from a previous infection.
The UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance admitted “we don’t know for sure” if the vaccines being rolled out on the NHS will work on the strains from Brazil and South Africa.
He told ITV's Peston: “There’s a bit more of a risk that this might make a change to the way the immune system recognizes it but we don’t know.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today denied there was a delay in banning flights from South America while speaking on Sky News.
He said the government took action as soon as the genome sequencing – the process that finds new mutations – was complete.
Shapps added: "Scientists aren't saying that the vaccine won't work against it.
"But we are at this late stage now, we have got so far – we have got jabs into the arms of three million Brits now – that's more than France, Spain, Germany, Italy put together, and we do not want to be tripping up at this last moment."
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