South America is quickly becoming the new epicentre of the pandemic, with the so-called Brazil variant spreading across the continent and cases threatening to spiral out of control. 

But is the variant alone to blame for the rise in cases? And should we be worried about a similar surge in the UK? Here’s what you need to know.

What is happening in South America?

Coronavirus figures released by health authorities across South America this week show that cases across the continent are surging. Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay have registered a record number of daily deaths and Brazil has recorded more than 4,000 Covid-related deaths in 24 hours for the first time during the pandemic.

What is causing the surge?

In Brazil, critics of Jair Bolsonaro have pointed to the President’s refusal to introduce lockdown measures as one of the reasons for the outbreak. Bolsonaro says that the damage a lockdown would cause to the economy would be worse than the effects of the virus itself and has even tried to reverse some of the restrictions imposed by Brazil’s local authorities in the courts.

In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera has been criticised for opening the country up from lockdown too early. After racing ahead of the rest of Latin America with its vaccination programme, the Piñera administration created a permit system to allow Chileans to travel around the country in January. But doctors are now accusing the government of fuelling a huge spike in Covid-19 cases by prematurely reopening the economy, and restrictions have since been re-imposed.

Regardless of these alleged political failings, the catastrophic rise in infections across South America has been attributed, for the most part, to the rapid spread of the new Brazilian Covid-19 variant.

How infectious is the Brazil variant?

The P.1, or Brazil variant, has become a cause for concern because it is thought to be more than twice as transmissible as the original strain.

As genetic sequencing is not widespread throughout South America, it is hard to determine how widely the variant has spread. However, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina have all had confirmed cases.  The variant has also been identified in the UK, despite Brazil being placed on the ‘red list’ of countries from which arrivals need to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days on arrival in England.

Why hasn’t Chile’s vaccine programme stopped a spike in cases?

According to vaccination figures from 5 April, Chile had the third highest vaccination rate in the world – with 37.2 per cent of the country having already received at least one vaccine dose. It came close behind the UK, which had vaccinated 46.6 per cent of the population with at least one dose on this date.

Although Chile’s vaccine figures aren’t too dissimilar to our own, the countries have deployed a very different mix of vaccines. While Pfizer has been offered in both countries, the bulk of vaccinations in Britain have been AstraZeneca (not available in Chile) and the bulk of vaccinations in Chile have been developed by China’s Sinovac.

The difference could be key in determining whether the devastating new surges in South America might be replicated elsewhere. Of all of the vaccines currently available in the world, Sinovac is believed to be the least effective. A Brazilian study in January suggested that it had an efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic illness of 50.4 per cent, far below the 95 per cent reported for Pfizer and 76 per cent measured for AstraZeneca in its recent US trial.

Should the UK be worried?

This week, Professor Chris Whitty said the situation in Chile offered evidence that inoculation on its own may not be a silver bullet in the fight against the deadly bug – and that new lockdowns could still be required in future. He said: “This is the reason we want to do things in a steady way because the assumption that just because you vaccinate lots of people, then the problem goes away, I think Chile is quite a good corrective to that.”

Yet the Chief Medical Officer did admit that it was not yet certain what had caused a spike in cases: “Is this due to vaccines used? Is this due to the timing of when things have actually been rolled out? Is it due to particular interactions with other variants? We don’t yet know.”

Several investigations into the effectiveness of the UK’s main vaccines against new variants have produced encouraging results. Studies by Pfizer and the University of Birmingham suggest that the Pfizer vaccine will work against the Brazil variant and give at least six months’ of protection, while a study by the University of Oxford found that existing coronavirus jabs may protect against the Brazilian variant as the strain “may be less resistant to antibodies”.

But health commentators are wary. The Telegraph’s Paul Nuki warns that the situation in Chile might give an insight into what could happen in the UK if a new variant broke out and reduced the vaccine’s efficacy: “Like Chile, our vaccine mix is also split between mRNA and conventional jabs – of which the former are thought to offer greater protection against new variants of the virus.” Only time will tell, but the whole of the UK will be holding its breath and hoping that the country will not become, as Nuki puts it, the new “Chile of Europe”.