MANACAPURU, Brazil, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Health workers sped along the Amazon river this week to start vaccinating riverside communities, bringing hope to a region hard hit by COVID-19 and now facing a lethal surge driven by a new Brazilian variant of coronavirus.
Wearing protective masks and gowns, they traveled by open motorboat from Manacapuru, a town two hours from the jungle city of Manaus, where hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen last month and cemeteries could not dig graves fast enough to deal with Brazil's highest death rate.
"I am happy you've come. We have lost so many old people and young ones too," said 83-year-old Maria Araujo after receiving a dose of a British vaccine made by India's Serum Institute.
"This has given us hope that things will change, they will improve," she said.
Brazil is scrambling to get access to more vaccines to fight the world's most deadly coronavirus outbreak outside the United States. So far, it has vaccinated 2 million people, mostly health workers and elderly Brazilians, with vaccines made by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd (SVA.O) and AstraZeneca Plc (AZN.L).
More than 9.2 million Brazilians have been infected by the virus and 225,000 have died. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
In Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state with 2.1 million inhabitants, more than 5,500 have died, or 261 per 100,000, the highest rate in Brazil, according to Health Ministry data.
Researchers say the aggressive surge in Manaus is largely due to a new variant of the virus discovered there, called P1, which has quickly become the dominant variant, leading scientists to believe it is more contagious.
Genome sequencing indicates that 91% of new COVID-19 cases in January in Amazonas state involved the new variant, said Felipe Naveca, a virologist at the ILMD/Fiocruz Amazônia biomedical research center. That is up from 51% of cases sequenced in December and none in November.
The variant was first detected early last month on four travelers who arrived in Japan coming from the Amazon.
Scientists have not yet determined whether P1, derived from the B.1.1.28 lineage of SARS-CoV-2, is more lethal than earlier variants. Naveca said it clearly spreads faster, although cases also increased due to less social distancing over the holiday season.
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