Researchers in Brazil – where a surging death toll is causing international alarm – found that the country’s P1 coronavirus variant is mutating in ways that could make it more resistant to vaccines.
The study, conducted by the public health institute Fiocruz and released this week, found mutations in the spike region of the virus – where it can enter and infect the body’s cells.
That’s particularly troublesome, said one of the study’s authors, who explained that this creates another “escape mechanism” for the virus to evade the response of antibodies.
The P1 variant, which has quickly become dominant in Brazil, is thought to be a large factor behind a massive second wave that has brought the country's death toll to over 350,000 - the second highest in the world behind the United States.
Brazil's outbreak is also increasingly affecting younger people, with hospital data showing that in March more than half of all patients in intensive care were aged 40 or younger.
Sao Paulo Health Secretary Jean Gorinchteyn: "In the first wave, we saw mainly older people. But this is not what we're seeing now. It is a disease that has shown itself to be more aggressive, particularly in young people, since these young people are putting off going to the hospital because they are more relaxed about the illness because they are young, so they arrive in much more serious condition."
Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest and most populous state, has warned that its ability to care for seriously ill COVID-19 patients was on the verge of collapse as it ran dangerously low on key drugs, according to a report Wednesday in the country’s largest newspaper.
President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, including downplaying the disease's severity, promoting dubious treatments and repeatedly opposing social distancing measures.
Experts say his handling of the outbreak has encouraged the virus to run rampant, increasing the likelihood of mutations, such as the P1 variant.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria: "It is very sad. We should have leadership from the federal government, an organized public health process, national coordination. We have a lack of national coordination, disregard for transparency, and even hostility towards the press."
Brazil's Supreme Court confirmed on Wednesday an earlier decision by one of its judges that the Senate install a committee to investigate the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.