Brazil passes 10 million COVID-19 cases

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Brazil has surpassed 10 million confirmed coronavirus cases, as a new variant discovered in the Amazon threatens to further ravage a country where inoculations have been halted in many cities due to a lack of vaccines.

Epidemiologists warn the recent carnival holiday could see a further uptick in infections, coming on the heels of Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations that sent cases soaring.

A drop in infection rates from September to October led some to think the worst was over but the country has set fresh weekly records for new cases and deaths this year.

As of Thursday, the health ministry had tallied 10,030,626 total infections, including 51,879 cases in the past 24 hours.

The pandemic has killed 243,457 people in Brazil, the worst death toll outside the United States. Ministry data showed 1367 additional deaths since the last update on Wednesday.

"Despite the size of this number, it is still probably well below the real figure due to a lack of testing," said Alexandre Naime Barbosa, head of epidemiology at the State University of Sao Paulo.

President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently played down the gravity of the pandemic, urging Brazilians back to work and saying he would not be vaccinated.

With the new Brazilian strain, which originated in the jungle city of Manaus, experts worry things could get worse.

The new strain, thought to be more contagious, has already been reported in six Brazilian states including Rio de Janeiro, where its spread may put more pressure on creaky health services.

Surging case numbers is particularly worrying due to Brazil's sluggish vaccination program.

Several major cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, have halted immunisations after running out of doses.

Despite vowing to vaccinate the entire population of around 210 million by the end of the year, the health ministry has provided states with just 11.8 million doses.

That is far short of the 104.2 million doses needed to immunise just the highest risk groups in Brazil, using vaccines that require two shots per person.