As warnings about the hyper-infectious COVID strains first isolated in the UK and South Africa ring out across the US, Europe and, well, the rest of the world, too, at this point, authorities in Brazil fear they may have a new strain on their hands that's more infectious, and deadlier, than anything the world has seen previously.
According to a report published by Brazilian outlet Universo Online, a surge in cases and deaths, particularly among younger patients, in the hard-hit Amazonian city of Manaus (situated in northwestern Brazil, on the banks of the River Negro) has drawn the attention of health professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic in the hard-hit Latin American powerhouse.
Several officials with direct knowledge of the situation told UOL that a new "variant" - a mutated strain of the virus - may be responsible for harsher symptoms, and quicker onset times.
But the most alarming shift has been a surge in deaths among younger people, who are dying now in greater numbers than in earlier waves of the outbreak in Manaus, which has long struggled with overburdened health-care resources.
According to Manaus death records from the past 30 days cited by ULO, four out of ten deaths during that time involved patients under the age of 60 in the state.
The UOL analyzed the latest data Transparency Portal of the registry offices. There were 710 deaths in the state (since it may still increase), of which 285 were people under 60 years old - or 40.1% of the total. Before that period, this percentage was 36.5%. "Without a doubt many more young people are dying. We are not just talking about a risk group: this is in all age groups, affecting babies, children, teenagers even without comorbidity", points out the infectologist Silvia Leopoldina, who also works in the state public networks and municipal of Manaus. The doctor says there were changes in the behavior of the disease in the state. "Before, the first symptoms of severity appeared around the tenth day onwards. Now there are patients who, with seven, eight days, are involved in 75% of both lungs.".
One researcher told ULO that, while he couldn't say for certain what it is, "something very different" is happening in Manaus right now.
"Something very different is happening in Manaus. I don't know if it is a new strain or if it is something different. But those on the front line are seeing an increase in the severity of the cases," says infectologist and researcher Noaldo Lucena, who works in popular clinic, home care and public hospitals.
The new infection and death numbers are so severe, he says, they go beyond the already known greater contagiousness of the new variant of the virus.
"Clearly, we are facing an invisible being that is much more pathogenic and transmissible. Today whole families arrive with the symptoms at the same time, before it was one at a time."
Lucena added that patients in Manaus are also seeing more severe damage to their lungs.
"This year, I have seen 150 more people here at the clinic and 300 more in the public service. I say that less than 2% of them had mild impairment. The rest were over 50%. Some with 70%, 80%, 90%, requiring immediate hospitalization and even ventilatory support," he said.
The lung damage is also becoming harder to detect on initial examination.
"You auscultate the patient's lungs and hear nothing. But when you see the tomographic image, you don't believe how there is such a huge commitment with so little noticeable clinical repercussion."
While researchers are still working to confirm exactly what is causing the surge in deaths and severity in Manaus, the biggest fears remain: that new mutations of COVID-19 might be able to pierce through immunity from past infections, and the vaccine.