SAO PAOLO (BLOOMBERG) - Brazil reached 7 million coronavirus cases as infections pick up pace just ahead of the holiday season.
The government reported a record 70,574 new cases Wednesday (Dec 16), taking the total to 7,040,608. The milestone comes less than a month after Brazil hit the 6 million mark. The Latin American nation trails only the US in number of cases and is third in the world in Covid-19 deaths, with 183,735.
"The data show we are going through an acute phase of new Covid cases, disseminated across Brazil," said Domingos Alves, a professor of medicine who's part of the Covid-19 Brasil monitoring group.
Brazil was among the last places to get hit by the first wave of the pandemic that originated in China, recording its first case in February. Now, it's joined Europe and the US in battling another surge of infections.
The resurgence of the virus led Rio de Janeiro to officially cancel New Year's festivities, which attract millions of tourists each year. Sao Paulo has ordered bars to close earlier, while Florianopolis extended restrictions as intensive-care units filled to 87 per cent of capacity in the southern state of Santa Catarina.
"It's different from when the pandemic started - it first hit capitals, then went slowly inland. Now we're seeing cases rise in both almost simultaneously," said Marcelo Gomes, who oversees a bulletin on respiratory diseases published by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, one of Latin America's most prominent health and science institutes.
On Dec 11, Brazil added more than 54,000 cases, the highest daily toll since August. Weekly infections are hovering above 300,000. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts Brazil's death toll will top 232,000 by April 1.
The timing of the new surge is particularly concerning, Gomes said. Images of shopping malls and streets crowded with Christmas shoppers have become a regular feature in local media over the past few weeks, and will be followed by holiday gatherings mixing people of different age groups, often from different cities.
"The virus isn't behaving any differently, but people are. If people don't go back to protecting themselves as they were before, it will intensify," said Nancy Bellei, an infectious disease expert at Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo.
"We don't know when we'll start immunising, but even if we did, it would take at least three months to get a good chunk of the population."
The increase in cases in Brazil is particularly troubling given the uncertain timeline for inoculating the population. While countries such as the US and UK have already started giving shots to health-care workers, Brazil has yet to approve a vaccine for use.
Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello dismissed concerns about the country's vaccination plans and said that regulatory approval for shots against Covid-19 could come by mid-February.
His plan forecasts groups most at risk from the disease will get the vaccines in the first half of next year. The rest of the population should get the shots within 12 months after that.
"The most important thing here today is not to present the plan, it's to show we are all together," Pazuello said at an event in Brasilia on Wednesday.
"Why the anxiety, the angst? We're a benchmark in Latin America, and we're working." Pazuello, the third person to occupy the health minister post during the pandemic, said all Brazilians will get free and equal access to vaccines.
Shots won't be mandatory and the government will require people to sign a consent form to get vaccinated during the period of emergency use. Transportation companies have offered to help with logistics at no cost, he said.
While the Pfizer vaccine has been given emergency regulatory approval in Mexico and Chile, Brazil has dragged its feet in the global race for supplies. The delays are creating concern that the nation's sturdy immunisation program won't be enough to ensure Brazil does better in the next phase of the crisis.
The country says it has secured 300 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, mostly shots from AstraZeneca that are still under trial. It could also eventually use a vaccine from China's CoronaVac, developed by Sinovac Biotech, which will be produced in Sao Paulo state and has been a source of conflict between the federal administration and Governor Joao Doria.
Pfizer submitted results of its phase 3 trials to regulator Anvisa on Wednesday.
For his part, President Jair Bolsonaro has said he won't take a vaccine. #EuNaoVouTomarVacina, or #IWon'tTakeAVaccine, was among the top trending topics on Twitter in Brazil on Wednesday following the President's pledge, made after he gave a speech at a packed wholesale market the previous day.
Bolsonaro, speaking at the same event as the health minister Wednesday, also struck an optimistic tone, saying "the calm after the storm" is on the horizon.
"Being really optimistic, considering how delayed the negotiations are, even if we got all the vaccines, we won't immunise more than a third of the population until the end of next year" Alves said.