Brazil, which has entered the deadliest phase of the pandemic in the country so far, in part, scientists believe, due to the spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant known as P.1 that was spotted for the first time in New York this week. 

Key Facts

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Saturday that the variant was identified in a Brooklyn resident in her 90s with no travel history, joining roughly a dozen other states that have confirmed at least one case of the troubling variant, first reported outside Brazil in Japan in December among four people who had traveled from Brazil.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about the role P.1 has played in driving a devastating second wave of the virus in Brazil, where deaths (averaging over 2,200 per day over the past week) and cases (averaging over 70,000 per day) are higher than they’ve ever been, and where nearly every state has an ICU occupancy of 80% or higher.

Research is increasingly pointing to P.1 as a critical factor in driving the country’s recent outbreak, including a study from Brazil’s Fiocruz public health institute earlier this month, which found variants like P.1 were prevalent in at least half of all the country’s new cases. 

This variant has emerged as particularly troubling to public health experts because it may be as much as 2.2 times more transmissible than the previous most widespread strains, research suggests, and may be more contagious than the U.K. variant.

The Brazilian variant also has reinfected some people who had previously contracted Covid-19, a study of the variant’s prevalence in the Amazonian city of Manaus found earlier this month (the study has not yet been published in a scientific journal).

Though researchers are still looking into the efficacy of vaccines against this variant, an Oxford University study published this week suggested that P.1 may be “less resistant” to vaccines than originally feared, though the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines had a roughly three-fold reduction in neutralization power against it in lab tests. 

Crucial Quote 

“The world has not awoken to the dire potential reality that P.1 variant could represent,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. told CNN in a recent interview. “All of this together should raise the alarms in every country around the world that we must help Brazil contain P.1, lest we all suffer the same fate of the collapsing Brazilian hospital system.” 

Key Background 

Though top U.S. health officials have expressed concern that the spread of new variants could undo the country’s recent progress in combating Covid-19, the U.S. has the benefit of a relatively quick-moving vaccination rollout. Over 30% of American adults have been at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, and the Biden administration has secured more than enough doses for every resident. Brazil, on the other hand, has inoculated less than 10 million of the country’s 220 million residents, with just over 1.5% of the population fully vaccinated as of Friday. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also publicly mocked the efficacy of vaccines, while the U.S. government has taken a proactive approach. New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker nonetheless characterized the state of the pandemic as a “race between the vaccine and the variants” during Cuomo’s announcement on Saturday. 

Big Number 

292,752. That’s how many people have died from Covid-19 in Brazil, giving it the second highest death toll after the U.S., where over 541,000 have died from the virus. Brazil, however, has a case-fatality rate of 2.4%, according to Johns Hopkins University, well ahead of the 1.8% case fatality rate in the U.S. 

Further Reading

“Brazil’s Covid Crisis Is a Warning to the Whole World, Scientists Say” (The New York Times) 

“No vaccines, no leadership, no end in sight. How Brazil became a global threat” (CNN)“Brazil Now Has The World’s Worst Covid Outbreak. Experts Blame Variants.” (Forbes)

“More Infectious Variant Drives Covid-19 Surge In Brazil, As Bolsonaro Pushes Unproven Cures” (Forbes)

“Covid-19 Reinfections Are Real And Serious—All The More Reason To Be Vaccinated” (Forbes)

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