Brazil passes India for second-highest COVID-19 case toll in world

By Rachel Gamarski, Caroline Aragaki and Chris Kay
Bloomberg News/TNS
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacts while sanctioning the bills that expand the capacity to purchase vaccines by the Federal Government, at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, March 10 2021. Brazil reported 85,663 new cases on Friday, pushing the total to 11,363,380 and surpassing India in coronavirus infections, retaking the post of second hardest-hit country in the world.

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Brazil surpassed India in coronavirus infections, retaking the post of second hardest-hit country in the world, as it rushes to contain the spread of the virus that’s wreaking havoc across the vast Latin American nation.

The country reported 85,663 new cases on Friday, pushing the total to 11,363,380. The number of deaths rose by 2,216, bringing the tally to 275,105. Now, Brazil trails only the U.S. in deaths and infections globally.

While a mix of aggressive social distancing restrictions and mass vaccinations have caused infections to decline across much of the world in recent weeks, Brazil is currently going through its worst phase of the pandemic. Cases and deaths have surged following year-end gatherings and clandestine Carnival festivities while a new, more transmissible, variant is accelerating contagion. Hospitals across the vast country are on the brink of collapse, prompting state governors to impose curfews and shutter businesses.

“The situation is totally out of control,” said Raquel Stucchi, an infectious disease expert and a professor at Unicamp University. “It will likely still get worse because despite the restrictions announced by governors and mayors, the federal government continues to insist they are not necessary.”

Since the virus first arrived a year ago, health experts have criticized President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the disease and the lack of a national policy to fight it. Restrictions have varied from city to city and are often eased only to be reimposed weeks later. The mishmash of policies have little to no enforcement, lowering their efficacy and prolonging the health crisis.

The resurgence of the virus has led Brazilian states to try to coordinate measures to restrict circulation to fight the pandemic, though they have yet to announce concrete guidelines. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, continues to urge governors to allow business to reopen, saying the economic toll of the pandemic outweighs the effects of the virus if people cannot work.

Since hitting a peak in September of almost 100,000 fresh daily infections, COVID-19 cases have plunged across India to slightly more than one-tenth that, although some states have recently seen a pick up. Deaths have likewise fallen to less than 100 a day from more than 1,000 seen six months ago.

The steady decline has puzzled scientists, with many pointing at multiple factors from India’s relatively youthful population and surveys that suggest herd immunity has been achieved in some areas in the crowded country - though Brazil’s population also skews young, and areas where researchers saw potential herd immunity were later overrun by another wave of the virus. Others have voiced so far unproven theories that widespread exposure to a high number of tropical diseases confers some protection against COVID-19.

Epidemiologists have also questioned India’s official numbers, pointing to low rates of testing and habitual underreporting of causes of death, particularly in rural parts of the country. However, a lull in COVID-19 wards suggests the trend is real.

The South Asian nation now hopes to vaccinate 300 million people by August, but the pace of its immunization campaign has lagged that target. Only about 26 million doses have been administered - covering about 1.6% of the population - despite a pick up this month after the government opened availability to citizens above the age of 60 and people at risk who are 45 or older.

In Brazil, delayed vaccination efforts have added to concern. Brazil was late to start immunizations, and did so with only a few million shots at hand - not enough to cover even priority groups in the nation of 212 million. The country saw shipments of vaccine inputs and ready-made doses get stuck in India and China, and talks with pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer Inc. have dragged on for months.

Brazil has given first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to about 4.4% of its population thus far, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker.

Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello has been fiercely criticized for the delays and has lost ground on negotiations for the purchase of more shots. Earlier this month, it was Economy Minister Paulo Guedes who sat down with Pfizer. Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco and Lower House Speaker Arthur Lira this week sent a letter to Pazuello asking for explanations on the delivery schedule of vaccines, and Lira also asked the Chinese ambassador in Brazil for help with supplies.

Amid the increasing pressure, Bolsonaro on Wednesday departed from his usual defense of unproven anti-COVID-19 treatments and praised the importance of vaccines. The president, who has said he won’t get vaccinated himself and even joked about potential side effects of the shots, said “Brazil is one of the few countries in the world with capacity to make vaccines, and we want that.”

For now, doses are restricted to Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s CoronaVac and AstraZeneca Plc’s boosters, both of which have agreements to be produced locally. Pazuello said Monday that India forbade the export of 8 million doses of AstraZeneca’s jab to Brazil, according to Reuters.

Early studies have indicated that Sinovac and AstraZeneca’s vaccines are effective against the variant originated in the northern city of Manaus, which health experts say is likely partially to blame for the flare up of the virus across Brazil. The strain seems to be at least twice as contagious, and have a viral load as much as 10 times higher, according to preliminary studies.

“We have a new variant that is much more transmissible,” Unicamp University’s Stucchi said. “Without preventive measures we’ll see cases rise exponentially.