As a coronavirus variant traced to the Brazilian Amazon marauded through Peru’s coastal capital last month, Rommel Heredia raced to his local hospital to seek help for his brother, mother and father.
“I said goodbye and promised I’d come back to take them home,” said the 47-year-old PE teacher, his voice muffled by two black masks pulled tightly over his face.
Heredia was unable to fulfil his pledge. Three days later, his 52-year-old brother, Juan Carlos, died as he waited for a bed in intensive care at the Rebagliati public hospital in Lima. The next day he lost his 80-year-old mother, Vilma, who suffered a fatal brain inflammation doctors blamed on Covid-19. Four days later his father, Jorge, passed away.
“The truth is, the pain’s just too great. I can’t come to terms with it,” Heredia said on Sunday as Peru suffered its heaviest day of Covid losses and fears mounted over how new variants might have rejuvenated the pandemic that has already killed more than 3 million people worldwide.
Similar sentiments of incredulity and despair are being voiced across Latin America as the apparently more contagious P1 variant linked to Brazil makes an already shattering Covid crisis somehow even worse. Nearly 1 million Latin American lives have been lost here since the region’s first Covid case was detected in February 2020, and the pandemic is now accelerating again in countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay, with many convinced the Brazilian variant bears much of the blame.
“The Brazilian variant has reached virtually all regions,” Peru’s health minister, Óscar Ugarte, warned in early April as his country was plunged into the most deadly phase of what was already one of the worst outbreaks on Earth.
Ester Sabino, a Brazilian scientist who is tracking the P1 variant’s spread, said phylogenic analysis suggested it had emerged in the second half of November somewhere near Manaus, a sultry riverside metropolis in Brazil’s Amazon. Weeks later, Manaus made global headlines after its hospitals were overwhelmed by a sudden deluge of patients for which they were catastrophically unprepared. “What we’re watching is a complete massacre,” one local health worker told the Guardian at the time, as hospitals ran out of oxygen and patients asphyxiated.
Until Manaus’s collapse, which coincided with the emergence of similar variants in England and South Africa, Sabino had been hopeful Brazil’s outbreak might gradually be brought under control in 2021, as vaccination gained pace. But authorities failed to isolate the city and stop the variant spreading.
By February, Araraquara, a city 1,500 miles south in São Paulo state, had been forced into lockdown by an explosion of infections linked to P1. Hospitals across Brazil reported being inundated with Covid patients, many disturbingly young, and Brazil’s death toll nearly doubled, from just over 195,000 at the start of January to 380,000 now. By March, the variant, which has now been detected in eight South American countries, was invading Brazil’s neighbours, too: sweeping west into the Peruvian Amazon, leapfrogging the Andes, and laying siege to Lima, more than 1,300 miles to Manaus’s south-west.
“It’s not just a much more contagious variant but it also increases the levels of reinfection, which reduces the efficacy of vaccines,” said Antonio Quispe, a Peruvian epidemiologist who said P1’s “rapid and violent” spread was dire news for the region.
With fears over how some new variants might dodge vaccine protection, governments have tightened travel restrictions and closed borders. France recently suspended all flights to Brazil as a result of what the prime minister, Jean Castex, called its “absolutely dramatic” epidemic.
“The Europeans are right to be afraid about what is happening in Brazil,” said Marcos Boulos, an infectious disease specialist from the University of São Paulo who said uncontrolled outbreaks such as Brazil’s provided the ideal breeding grounds for variants. “The more transmission there is, the more variants appear … The situation is very, very serious,” Boulos said.
This week the British government added India – which is witnessing a ferocious surge in cases – to its travel red list amid growing concern over the B.1.617 variant found there. A world record 314,835 infections were reported there on Thursday, with the prime minister, Narendra Modi, comparing the crisis to a storm.
Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian scientist who has become one of the most outspoken critics of president Jair Bolsonaro’s denialist Covid response, said government inaction had helped turn Latin America’s most populous nation into a global coronavirus threat. “Brazil is like a brewery and it’s brewing variants left, right and centre,” Nicolelis said, warning that while some mutations might hamper the virus’s ability to spread, others might could make it even more transmissible or lethal.
Nicolelis said the situation in India, which has 1.3 billion citizens, a population nearly seven times larger than Brazil’s, was even more troubling. “Things can happen even faster there. They are paving the way for an explosion of mutations … It’s frightening,” he said, calling for a global strategy of vaccination and sequencing to tackle the problem.
“Countries like Brazil and India can’t just be treated as global pariahs and abandoned. They need to be helped – because it’s not just their problem, it is the world’s,” Nicolelis said, adding that a similar lack of Covid control had also spawned the B117 variant in the UK.
Heredia was not sure which variant had been responsible for killing his family, although the government has said 40% of cases in Lima are now linked to P1. But he had no doubts over the scale of the calamity gripping his country, where a record 433 deaths last Sunday took Peru’s official total to more than 57,000.
“There are 30 patients [in the queue for ICU] before your brother and they’re prioritising younger patients,” Heredia recalled a doctor telling him after his sibling was admitted on the third Friday of March. Juan Carlos never made it out of the emergency ward, where he died three days later from pneumonia and pneumothorax complications.
“People are dying because they can’t get ICU beds,” Heredia said. “This is like war”.