The death toll from COVID-19 in Brazil is projected to exceed 500,000 on Saturday, as experts warn that the world’s second-deadliest outbreak might increase owing to delayed vaccines and the government’s unwillingness to support social distancing measures.
Only 11% of Brazilians are completely vaccinated, and epidemiologists warn that with winter approaching in the southern hemisphere and new coronavirus strains circulating, fatalities will continue to rise even if vaccinations gain traction.
According to Health Ministry statistics released on Friday, Brazil has recorded 498,499 deaths from 17,801,462 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest official death toll outside of the United States. Brazil has averaged 2,000 fatalities each day during the last week.
COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc on nations around the continent, with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reporting 1.1 million new cases and 31,000 fatalities in the Americas last week. PAHO reported increases in six Mexican states, Belize, Guatemala, Panama, and other Caribbean countries.
Colombia’s COVID-19 crisis, according to PAHO, is at its worst point ever, with intensive care unit beds overflowing in key cities.
Experts see the toll in Brazil, already the highest in Latin America, climbing far higher.
“I think we are going to reach 700,000 or 800,000 deaths before we get to see the effects of vaccination,” said Gonzalo Vecina, former head of Brazilian health regulator Anvisa, predicting a near-term acceleration in fatalities.
“We are experiencing the arrival of these new variants and the Indian variant will send us for a loop.”
Vecina criticized far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, including the lack of a coordinated national response and his skepticism toward vaccines, lockdowns and mask-wearing requirements, which he has sought to loosen.
According to Raphael Guimaraes, a researcher at the Brazilian biomedical institute Fiocruz, delays in the vaccine campaign in Latin America’s most populous country meant that the full impacts would not be noticed until September or later.
Guimaraes predicted that Brazil might relive the horrors of its March-April peak, when it averaged 3,000 deaths per day.
“We are still in an extremely critical situation, with very high transmission rates and hospital bed occupancy that is still critical in many places,” he added.
This week, the number of confirmed cases in Brazil increased to more over 70,000 per day on average, surpassing India as the country with the highest.
Vaccination will be crucial in beating the virus in Brazil, since the country has failed to reach a consensus on social distancing and masks, said Ester Sabino, an epidemiologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
“We really need to increase vaccination very quickly,” she said.
However, evidence from neighboring Chile, which like Brazil has relied overwhelming on a vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech (SVA.O), suggests it may be months before mass immunization will effectively curb transmission.
Despite the fact that over half of Chileans have been immunised, the country’s capital, Santiago, has recently been placed under lockdown as cases rose to near peak levels.
To match Chile’s current per capita vaccination levels, Brazil will need to immunise around 80 million people.
This would necessitate a more constant supply of vaccines and components in Brazil, which has been patchy in recent months due to delays in imports from China after Bolsonaro antagonised Beijing with anti-Chinese remarks.