MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) – Uruguay confirmed on Monday that it had detected the presence of two coronavirus variants that originated in neighbouring Brazil as the tiny South American nation faces a spike in cases and deaths.
Scientists examined 175 COVID-19 samples taken from around the country and found the Brazilian P1 strain in 24 of them and the P2 variant in four.
Gregorio Iraola, a scientist with Uruguay’s Inter-Institutional Working Group (GTI) conducting genome sequencing of COVID-19 cases, said the P2 variant was now being transmitted within the wider community rather than brought in from overseas, making tackling the outbreak “more complicated.”
Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou has called a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to address the issue.
Uruguay, which has a population 3.5 million, has in recent weeks seen a spike in new cases, deaths and demand for hospital intensive care beds, with occupancy rates for the latter reaching 64%, the Uruguayan Society of Intensive Care Medicine said in a report. COVID-19 patients accounted for 22% of those beds.
It warned that if urgent measures are not taken to reduce infections, hospital bed occupancy could soar to 85% by April 4.
Both the P1 and P2 COVID-19 strains have been identified as spreading rapidly in Brazil, which has the world’s highest daily caseload at present.
Early studies suggest they can overcome some antibodies, increase a person’s chances of reinfection and diminish the efficacy of vaccines.
Oxford University study published last week that suggested antibodies developed through both natural illness and vaccines can still neutralise such variants, albeit at lower levels.
(Reporting by Fabian Werner, writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Sam Holmes)