Brazilian who visited Italy is first coronavirus patient in Latin America

A photo taken on Feb 25, 2020, shows tourists with protective masks in Venice.
A photo taken on Feb 25, 2020, shows tourists with protective masks in Venice.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO - A 61-year-old man from Sao Paulo who returned recently from a business trip to Italy has tested positive for the coronavirus, Brazilian health officials said on Wednesday (Feb 26), confirming the first known case in Latin America.

Officials were scrambling on Wednesday to track down the other passengers on the flight the man took to Brazil and to find others who had contact with him in recent days.

The infection news broke just as Brazil's Carnival celebrations have begun, with many foreign visitors arriving.

The diagnosis was announced by the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who added that Brazil was investigating 20 additional cases, including 12 patients who recently traveled to Italy.

The man was said to have travelled to northern Italy from Feb 9-21.

Although the virus originated in China, there has been a surge of cases in Italy, most notably in the northern region of Lombardy, and the illness has now spread to several countries in Europe.

As the virus spread briskly across China and neighboring countries in recent weeks, killing thousands of people, and began to take a toll in Europe, Latin America was spared.

But health officials in the region have been on high alert, anticipating that it was only a matter of time before the virus arrived.

"It's a global world," Mandetta said. "It's an interconnected world."

Health officials said that Brazil had been preparing for weeks for coronavirus cases and that medical personnel had been given detailed guidance on diagnostic and treatment protocols. But experts warned that funding cuts in recent years had left Brazil ill-equipped to grapple with an epidemic.

Mandetta said at a news conference that the case might shed light on how the virus spreads in warmer climates.

"This is a new virus," Mandetta said, noting experts have yet to ascertain "how it behaves."

Earlier, Mandetta had told the G1 news site that officials were hopeful that the virus would not spread briskly in Brazil given the summer time of year in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Brazilian man who tested positive sought care at Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in Sao Paulo on Tuesday after coming down with a fever, a cough and a sore throat.

The patient is in stable condition and has been asked to remain in quarantine at home for at least 14 days, officials said.

"Medical personnel will continue to monitor him closely, as well as people who were in close contact with him," the hospital said in a statement.

The coronavirus case in Sao Paulo emerged two days after a group of Brazilians who had been in quarantine after returning home from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak, were found to be healthy and allowed to resume normal activities.

Jose Gomes Temporao, a former health minister who oversaw Brazil's response to the H1N1 virus in 2009 and 2010, said Brazil has a solid health surveillance system, which could enable officials to diagnose cases promptly.

But, in contrast to Mandetta's optimism, he also cautioned that spending cuts have crippled the public health care system in recent years, leaving the government poorly prepared to grapple with an epidemic.

"We are cutting resources to public health, and we will need additional resources now," Temporao said.

Dr Nancy Bellei, an infectious disease specialist, said that personnel at the private hospital where the 61-year-old patient sought care appear to have acted quickly and to have followed best practices.

She, too, expressed concerns about whether Brazil's underfunded, overburdened public hospitals were ready to handle additional cases.

"We need to see how the public system is going to handle this situation because the number of cases is bound to increase," she said.

Brazil receives a surge of international visitors during this time of year as tourists come for Carnival, Bellei said.

"We receive many travellers," she said, "and that means there's a large flow of people."