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‘A biological Fukushima’: Brazil COVID-19 deaths on track to pass worst of US wave

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s brutal surge in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, scientists forecast, with fatalities climbing for the first time above 4,000 in a day on Tuesday as the outbreak overwhelms hospitals.

Brazil’s overall death toll trails only the US outbreak, with nearly 337,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

But with Brazil’s healthcare system at the breaking point, the country could exceed total US deaths, despite having a population two-thirds that of the United States, two experts told Reuters.

“It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima,” said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported another 4,195 COVID-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, well above the country’s prior single-day record. Brazil has set daily death records every week since late February, as a more contagious local variant and meager social distancing efforts fuel an uncontrolled outbreak.

With mass vaccinations curtailing the US outbreak, Brazil has become the epicenter of the pandemic, contributing about one in four deaths per day globally, according to a Reuters analysis.

President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider the best way to lessen virus transmission.

The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunization program.

Despite the recent surge, Brazilian officials are insistent that the country can soon return to something resembling business as usual.

“We think that probably two, three months from now Brazil could be back to business,” Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said during an online event on Tuesday. “Of course, probably economic activity will take a drop but it will be much, much less than the drop we suffered last year … and much, much shorter.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has responded to growing political pressure with a dramatic shakeup of a half dozen ministries, putting loyalists in key roles ahead of what may be a tough re-election campaign next year against his political nemesis.

While the president has shifted his tone on immunizations, touting vaccines he had recently disdained, the far-right former army captain continues to battle in the courts against state and municipal restrictions on economic activity.

With weak measures failing to combat contagion, Brazil’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever.

Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately forecasting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.

As soon as next week, Brazil may break the record US seven-day average for COVID-19 deaths, according to a model by the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The US average for daily deaths peaked at 3,285 in January.

The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 total U.S. fatalities expected by then. — Pedro Fonseca/Reuters

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