Brazil’s neighbors restrict travel to prevent spread of new strain of Covid-19
Brazil’s neighbors are starting to restrict international travel over concerns over the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus that experts say could be more contagious and lead to a second wave of infections.
The Guyanese government on Friday closed its border with South America’s largest country, two days after Colombia halted passenger flights to and from Brazil; both nations cited the new variant as the reason.
The Argentine government has decided to halve the number of flights to Brazil from February 1, according to a January 27 report by state news agency Telam. And Peru, on January 26, banned air traffic from Brazil; the governor of the Peruvian department of Loreto, bordering Brazil, also called on the government to close the land crossings.
The crackdown comes as Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon rainforest and the site of the variant outbreak, suffers a brutal second wave of infections. The invaded hospitals observed this month the depletion of their oxygen stocks, causing the death of suffocation of dozens of patients.
The government was quick to replenish supplies with an ad hoc plan, but the situation remains constant and patients’ family members are still searching for cans of oxygen on their own, albeit less than at the start of the month. .
There has been speculation that Manaus could simply be the first city devastated by this new strain. Other cities in Brazil’s Amazon region have since been crushed, including Porto Velho, capital of neighboring Rondonia state.
Like Manaus, Porto Velho has started airlifting patients to out-of-state hospitals. Former Brazilian health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told the O Globo newspaper on Thursday that the new strain could cause a mega-epidemic across Brazil within 60 days.
The alarm is growing, but science has yet to catch up. Viruses are constantly changing, and new versions called variants often emerge, almost all of which are not more perilous than their previous iterations.
The Brazilian variant was first identified in four travelers who had stayed in Brazil and were tested at an airport outside of Tokyo, Japan.
It was also found in a patient who lives in the city of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement this week. It contains a set of mutations that can affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials are also concerned about the variants first reported in the UK and South Africa.
Felipe Navaveca, a researcher at the Fiocruz Amazonia public institute in Manaus, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that the new strain made up two-thirds of the 90 samples taken between December and mid-January. Of those taken in January alone, the new strain accounted for 91%. Naveca said it appears the variant is more transmissible, based on how often it has been found and indications of the UK and South African variants that had similar mutations.
Most of the samples analyzed by his lab came from Manaus, but the new strain has also been found in towns deeper in the Amazon, including Sao Gabriel Cachoeira on the Colombian border.
Sylvain Aldighieri, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization’s health emergencies department, said it was still too early to determine whether the variant is accelerating the spread of the virus and that further genetic sequencing is needed. Nonetheless, he called on governments to remain vigilant.
Speaking in an interview with the AP on Friday, Guyanese Health Minister Frank Anthony said local private labs had already said they were equipped to test any new strain. The initial 30-day suspension is accompanied by reinforced border patrols by soldiers and police.
We don’t have proof yet that the new strain of the COVID-19 virus is here, but we are just cautious, he said.
Anthony acknowledged that the 1,606 kilometer (1,000 mile) border is virtually impossible to patrol. Thousands of Guyanese and Brazilians use the official Takatu River Bridge daily to enter Guyana, while others simply cross several other small rivers separating the two South American nations to trade, visit relatives, or work. Many of each country live in one country and work in the other, so crossings are normal for many.
Bolivian and Venezuelan authorities, which share two of Brazil’s three longest borders, have not announced any recent changes to restrictions. Jose Gregorio Daz Mirabal, general coordinator of indigenous organizations in the Amazon Basin, warned this week that an effective barrier has not been put in place.
There is no guarantee that he will not reach the border (of Brazil) with Venezuela, with Colombia, Suriname, Guyana, Daz Mirabal, who belongs to the Wakuenai Kurripako ethnic group, said during a Zoom call with journalists.