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RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by the world's highest daily death toll fueled by a widespread local variant.
Last week, scientists at the Butantan biomedical institute said the case, identified in a woman in Sao Paulo state, might be a new local variant. Further analysis confirmed it as the first known local case of the variant widely circulating in South Africa and elsewhere.
Scientists fear a showdown between the South African variant and the already rampant Brazilian variant, known as P.1, both of which are more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus and have led to accelerated COVID-19 surges.
"It could be a huge duel," said Maria Carolina Sabbaga, one of Butantan's coordinators for studying new variants. "I think P.1 has already taken over. I'm not sure if the South African will overtake P.1, let's see."
The South African variant in studies appears to lessen protection from current vaccines.
Brazil is in the midst of a brutal COVID-19 wave, setting records for deaths on a weekly basis. On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported a single-day record of 4,195 deaths.
The outbreak in South America's largest country may overtake the United States to become the world's deadliest, some medical experts predict.
José Patané, a Butantan researcher, said the South African variant most likely arrived in Brazil after traveling through Europe toward the end of 2020.
The first local diagnosis, a woman in her 30s in the city of Sorocaba, had not traveled abroad or come into contact with someone who did, indicating local community transmission, researchers said.
SLOW VACCINE ROLLOUT
A possible surge of the South African variant could further complicate Brazil's slow vaccine rollout.
Brazil's COVID-19 immunization program is built around the vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd, which have proven effective against the Brazilian variant in preliminary studies, according to officials.
Research released on Wednesday showed the Sinovac shot was 50% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in a study of nearly 68,000 health workers in Manaus, where the P.1 strain first emerged as the predominant variant. The results support preliminary findings of separate research reported by Reuters last month.
In studies, the South African variant appears to lower the level of protection offered by the AstraZeneca shot and other available vaccines.
Immunizations have been slow to ramp up in Brazil after the government dragged its feet last year in acquiring vaccines while other countries raced to secure supplies.