Scientists concerned over latest Brazilian COVID variant | Daily News

Scientists concerned over latest Brazilian COVID variant

In just a matter of weeks, two variants of the Coronavirus have become so familiar that you can hear their inscrutable alphanumeric names regularly uttered on television news.

B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, has demonstrated the power to spread far and fast. In South Africa, a mutant called B.1.351 can dodge human antibodies, blunting the effectiveness of some vaccines.

Scientists have also had their eye on a third concerning variant that arose in Brazil, called P.1. Research had been slower on P.1 since its discovery in late December, leaving scientists unsure of just how much to worry about it.

“I’ve been holding my breath,” said Bronwyn MacInnis, an epidemiologist at the Broad Institute.

Now three studies offer a sobering history of P.1’s meteoric rise in the Amazonian city of Manaus. It most likely arose there in November and then fueled a record-breaking spike of coronavirus cases. It came to dominate the city partly because of an increased contagiousness, the research found. But it also gained the ability to infect some people who had immunity from previous bouts of Covid-19. And laboratory experiments suggest that P.1 could weaken the protective effect of a Chinese vaccine now in use in Brazil.

The new studies have yet to be published in scientific journals. Their authors caution that findings on cells in laboratories do not always translate to the real world, and they’ve only begun to understand P.1’s behavior. “The findings apply to Manaus, but I don’t know if they apply to other places,” said Nuno Faria, a virologist at Imperial College London who helped lead much of the new research.

But even with the mysteries that remain around P.1, experts said it is a variant to take seriously. “It’s right to be worried about P.1, and this data gives us the reason why,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

P.1 is now spreading across the rest of Brazil and has been found in 24 other countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded six cases in five states: Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

To reduce the risks of P.1 outbreaks and reinfections, Dr. Faria said it was important to double down on every measure we have to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Masks and social distancing can work against P.1. And vaccination can help drive down its transmission and protect those who do get infected from severe disease. Your Coronavirus Tracker: We'll send you the latest data for places you care about each day.

“The ultimate message is that you need to step up all the vaccination efforts as soon as possible,” he said. “You need to be one step ahead of the virus.” Dr. Faria and his colleagues started tracking the coronavirus when it exploded in Brazil last spring. Manaus, a city of two million in the Brazilian Amazon, was hit particularly hard. At its springtime peak, the cemeteries of Manaus were overwhelmed by the bodies of the dead.

But after a peak in late April, Manaus seemed to have gotten past the worst of the pandemic. Some scientists thought that the drop meant Manaus had gained herd immunity.

Dr. Faria and his colleagues looked for coronavirus antibodies in samples from a Manaus blood bank in June and October. They determined that roughly three-quarters of the residents of Manaus had been infected.

But near the end of 2020, new cases began surging again. “There were actually far more cases than in the previous peak of cases, which had been in late April,” Dr. Faria said. “And that was very puzzling to us.”

Dr. Faria and his colleagues wondered if new variants might be partly to blame for the resurgence. In Britain, researchers were finding that B.1.1.7 was surging across the country. To search for variants, Dr. Faria and his colleagues started a new genome sequencing effort in the city. While B.1.1.7 had arrived in other parts of Brazil, they didn’t find it in Manaus. (NYT)