Brazil coronavirus outbreak worsens as country could soon be No. 2 in cases

A view of the Intensive Care Unit treating coronavirus patients in a hospital in Manaus on May 20, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Brazil's coronavirus outbreak worsened on Wednesday (May 20) and the South American nation could soon have the second-highest number of cases in the world as the Health Ministry reported 888 new deaths and nearly 20,000 new infections in a single day.

Brazil might soon trail only the United States in the number of coronavirus cases. Russia currently has the second-highest number of cases. Brazil's coronavirus death toll is 18,859.

Brazil's confirmed case tally now stands at 291,579, according to the Health Ministry. On Monday, Brazil overtook Britain to become the country with the third-highest number of infections and registered a daily record of 1,179 deaths on Tuesday.

President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticised for his handling of the outbreak. The far-right former army captain has long snubbed social-distancing measures, arguing instead for the reopening the economy.

He has also become an increasingly strong advocate for the malaria drug chloroquine as a possible remedy for Covid-19, despite warnings from health experts.

Undeterred, the president has ordered the military to ramp up production of the drug as he makes it a key element in the anti-virus fight, losing two health ministers in the process due in part to their objections to the plan.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry issued new guidelines for wider use of anti-malarial drugs in mild coronavirus cases.

Interim Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general, authorised the modified protocol after two trained doctors left the ministry's top job under pressure to promote the early use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

"We are at war. Worse than defeat would be the shame of not putting up a fight," Bolsonaro tweeted about the government decision to put forward the drugs without proof of their effectiveness.

Gonzalo Vecina Neto, the former head of Brazil's health regulator, Anvisa, called the new measures a "barbarity" that could cause more harm than good because of the dangerous potential side effects of the drug.

"It has no scientific evidence," Vecina Neto told Reuters. "(It is) unbelievable that in the 21st century, we are living off magical thinking."

The controversy is just the latest twist in Brazil's erratic strategy to tackle the virus, with Bolsonaro pushing to restart the economy while local authorities try to enforce lockdowns and restrict activities to control it.

Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has often touted the anti-malarial medication. In small, yet frequent weekend demonstrations against social distancing, his supporters often carry signs asking for it to be authorised for use in the public health system.

Even US President Donald Trump has backed the practice, saying on Monday that he's been taking hydroxychloroquine, a sister drug, as a precautionary measure.

Clinical trials have failed to prove chloroquine's efficacy in combating Covid-19. French research found the drug didn't reduce the likelihood that a Covid-19 patient would die. Other trials were halted when patients developed potentially fatal irregular heart rates.

With the new guidelines, the health ministry now recommends the use of chloroquine or hydroxichloroquine by all Covid-19 patients, including children, starting in the early stages of infection. They must be prescribed by a doctor and patients will have to sign a document saying they understand the risks of taking the medication.

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