'Impossible to stop': Dire threat of more deadly, infectious Covid strain

Tom Flanagan
·News Reporter
·4-min read

“It’s impossible to stop.”

That's the daunting message from infectious disease expert Julio Castro as Brazil's highly-infectious coronavirus variant, which has triggered a terrifying surge in infections and deaths, is spreading across the globe.

While it spread across borders into badly-hit South America, Dr Castro told The Washington Post there were fears the new strain, P1, posed significant risk to nations deemed well protected against the virus.

Healthcare workers push a Covid-19 patient on a stretcher into the Base Public Hospital in Brasilia, Brazil on March 31, 2021.
Healthcare workers of the public Mobile Emergency Service bring a patient suspected of suffering from COVID-19 to the Base Public Hospital in Brasilia. Source: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Yet one of the most poignant messages from a raft of experts globally is there is no escape for the youth.

Statistics published by Brazilian public health research institution Fiocruz shows the virus infection rate for people in their 30s had jumped by 565 per cent between the first week of 2021 and the week ending March 13. 

The increase for the overall population stood at 316 per cent. The variant is understood to be twice as transmissible. 

One pre-print study from Brazil's south has found hospitalised people in their 20s were three times more likely to die.

On March 31, the nation recorded 3950 deaths, wrapping up a horrifying month in the pandemic.

"Never in Brazilian history have we seen a single event kill so many people in 30 days," Dr Miguel Nicolelis, coordinator of the pandemic response team for Brazil's impoverished northeast, said.

While Dr Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia Medical School, says current studies on the P1 variant are far from conclusive, they indicate it "may be the worst variant to have emerged so far".

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Fears virus could spread across the globe, Australia

As infections rise in many South American countries, and their health systems struggle to cope with a surge in patients, there are concerns it is only a matter of time the variant will begin to spread in more and more countries.

Japan and Canada are two countries who have expressed their fears over its spread, the latter thanks to more than a dozen cases of the variant in players and staff of ice hockey team the Vancouver Canucks.

Sources of the team told ESPN the symptoms were "intense", with some players unable to get out of bed.

Former Harvard epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding said it was vital nations such as Australia prepared themselves for a potential outbreak of the variant.

"Australia has done pretty well so far... but we have commended countries that did well early in the pandemic... but we saw later on disaster hit," he told Nine News.

And Dr Hyde concurs.

"Don’t think the tragedy unfolding in Brazil can’t also happen to your country," she said on Twitter late on Monday.

A graph of Brazil's Daily New Deaths showing fatality numbers are increasing.
Brazil's Covid-19 deaths have skyrocketed in recent weeks. Source: Worldometers

Brazil's approach fuelling the spread

As long as the pandemic continues to rage unchecked in Brazil, there is a risk more variants could emerge in the country, researchers say.

President Jair Bolsonaro faces mounting criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

The far-right leader's resistance to lockdowns, face masks and vaccines has caused a firestorm of controversy as Covid-19 has claimed more than 317,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.

"We're at the worst moment of the pandemic, and indications are that April will be very bad, too," epidemiologist Ethel Maciel, of Espirito Santo Federal University, said.

With the national vaccination campaign advancing slowly due to a shortage of doses, "the worst is yet to come", she told AFP.

Dr Hyde said it was vital public health measures such as mask wearing and restrictions on indoor gatherings should continue until everyone had a chance to be vaccinated.

"These findings also reinforce the importance of trying to suppress transmission as much as possible, rather than trying to 'learn to live' with the virus," she said.

With AFP

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