Brazil reports increase in new Covid infections as Omicron variant spreads
January 09 2022 12:00 AM
Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga.
Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga.

Reuters / Brasilia

Brazil has had 63,292 new cases of the coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, and 181 deaths from Covid-19, the health ministry said. That is the highest number of daily infections since July last year. Health experts say the Omicron variant is spreading in the South American country.
Brazil has now registered 22,450,222 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 619,822, according to ministry data. Brazil’s Covid-19 death toll trails only the United States and Russia, according to Reuters calculations.
Insufficient testing for Covid-19 and a data blackout caused by hackers have left Brazil in the dark as it grapples with a wave of infections from the Omicron coronavirus variant, health experts warn. Brazilians with Covid-19 symptoms are facing long lines to get tested due to the lack of kits in a country without a comprehensive testing strategy since the start of the pandemic.
Substantial testing and genomic sequencing of confirmed infections are crucial to tracking and fighting the pandemic, especially with the onset of the highly contagious Omicron.
To make matters worse, some Health Ministry databases have been offline since an apparent ransomware attack on Dec 10 seriously hampered the government’s ability to gather data from state health authorities. “In general, the registration system was bad from the start, and it got worse with the hacker attack, so we’re really under water,” said Gonzalo Vecina, former head of Brazilian health regulator Anvisa and professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “We’re in the dark,” he said.
Despite having the world’s third-deadliest outbreak after the United States and Russia, according to Reuters calculations Brazil tests for Covid-19 far less than South American peers. Over the last seven days, Brazil performed an average 0.23 tests per 1,000 inhabitants, according to statistics compiled by the Our World in Data website.
By contrast, Argentina applied 2.15 tests per 1,000 people in the same period and Uruguay performed 3.88 tests per 1,000 inhabitants.
Demand for tests in Brazil surged during year-end holidays and many pharmacies and clinics ran out of kits. Inventory had dwindled as vaccination advanced in the country and cases fell.
Despite limited data sources, Covid-19 cases are clearly rising in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, the rolling seven-day average of confirmed cases jumped more than 2,000% since mid-December to 398 on Monday.
“We are seeing an expressive increase in the number of cases, dealing with patients and people in everyday life. And this increase is happening in the places where Omicron has been detected,” said Esper Kallas, a doctor specialised in infectious diseases and professor at the University of Sao Paulo.
The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on how the cyberattack affected monitoring of the pandemic. Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga has said that data is being collected but not made public.
The ministry’s website was back online this week, but with numbers only through early December, before it was hacked.
Brazil has so far verified just 265 Omicron cases since late November, according to the ministry. Extensive sequencing in other countries showed Omicron quickly became the dominant variant, causing cases to surge in a matter of days.
The hope, experts say, is that Omicron does not seem as lethal as previous variants and its death toll may be limited in Brazil, where a vaccination campaign has inoculated about two thirds of the population and booster shots are available.
President Jair Bolsonaro criticised Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa on Thursday for authorizing the vaccination of children aged 5-11 years against Covid-19, one day after his health minister unveiled plans to inoculate that age group. Bolsonaro, who has bragged about not being vaccinated himself and has consistently cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of coronavirus vaccines, said in a radio interview that he had not heard of children dying of Covid-19 and repeated that his daughter Laura, 11, would not be vaccinated.
Bolsonaro said vaccines could have side effects on children, but gave no evidence. Anvisa and health regulators around the world have found that Covid-19 vaccines are safe for those from age 5 and up.
“Are you going to vaccinate your child when the possibility of dying is almost zero? What is behind this? What are the interests of vaccine maniacs?” Bolsonaro stated.
The Ministry of Health announced on Wednesday that it had bought 20mn paediatric vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc and voluntary vaccination of children 5-11 years old would begin by the end of the month. In a social media broadcast later on Thursday, Bolsonaro stressed that the vaccination was not obligatory. “No town mayor or state governor can prevent a child from going to school for not being vaccinated,” he said.
Bolsonaro warned that Pfizer has not assumed responsibility for any side effects the vaccine could have in children, and said parents should immediately seek a doctor if their child developed chest pains or shortage of breath. The Brazilian Society of Pediatrics rejected that view and said in a statement that Brazilians should fear the virus and not the vaccines, which can save lives at any age.
Anvisa approved the Pfizer vaccine for children on Dec 16, drawing heated criticism from people opposed to vaccines and the president, who suggested that children only be vaccinated with a doctor’s prescription.
The ministry dropped the idea as impractical. Requiring a written prescription would discourage vaccination at a time when the more transmissible coronavirus variant Omicron is starting to spread in Brazil, health experts said at a public hearing.
According to the national council of state health secretaries, at least 300 children aged 5 to 11 had died in Brazil from Covid-19 by the start of December. Brazil’s Army differed from the president this week on how to deal with Covid-19. It ordered soldiers to get vaccinated, wear masks and maintain social distance, and warned them against spreading false news about the pandemic.

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