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Sao Paulo Prepares For Lockdown After Record COVID-19 Deaths In Brazil

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The COVID outbreak in Brazil is among the worst in the world. About 260,000 people there have died of COVID. That's more than any country besides the U.S. And things there are getting worse, not better. Yesterday, Brazil hit its highest single-day death toll yet. Plus, a new, more contagious variant is spreading, one that appears to reinfect people who've already been sick.

Duke University neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis arrived in Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, just over a year ago. He has been advising government officials throughout the pandemic. When I spoke with him today, he compared life in Brazil right now to living through the siege of Stalingrad during World War Two.

MIGUEL NICOLELIS: You just see your comrades dying, your friends, your parents, your relatives, your childhood friends. I had childhood friends that went to medical school with me going to the - becoming patient, almost dying.

KELLY: Dr. Nicolelis is from Brazil. He went to med school in Sao Paolo. And now he says one of the largest hospitals in the country there in Sao Paolo is no longer admitting anyone, same for major hospitals in the countryside.

NICOLELIS: They're refusing to take patients because they cannot find a bed in the ICU to - let's say you have a heart attack or you have a stroke or you had a car accident. So people are on the waiting list of ICU beds for COVID. And actually, I have, you know, it's one of the most horrible things I have to say in my career, 40-year career as a physician, as a scientist, people are actually dying waiting for ICU bed.

KELLY: What are they doing? Are they staying home? Are they waiting outside in the parking lot? What's happening?

NICOLELIS: Well, everything is happening. People are waiting in the regular hospital bed. They are dying in ambulances in other parts of Brazil. They're dying at home. In some places, like you heard Manaus, they die on the streets. And you are seeing scenes which reminds me of what we saw in New York, you know, where you cannot even handle the victims. You cannot handle the bodies of the victims.

So I have alerted because I headed - for 12 months, I was the coordinator of the scientific task force of the northeastern states of Brazil, nine states. And on 4 January, our mathematical models were saying that Brazil was about to collapse in March, In the third week of March. And actually, we may collapse two weeks ahead of that.

KELLY: What you're describing is a horrific situation. And I have to say, it sounds different from what we are experiencing here in the U.S., where, as I noted, we have had more cases, more deaths than any other country, but the vaccines are rolling out. There is a sense that maybe there is some hope ahead. What you're describing is a country where things - is there a sense of hope? Is there any sense that you're turning a corner? It sounds like the opposite.

NICOLELIS: Well, I have to tell you, I was on national TV yesterday. And I couldn't see a single light on what they are telling me and what I was talking to them about. It's the most dreadful, most horrible moment I have to say, I dare to say, in Brazilian history, different from other countries like the U.S. or in Europe. We have never had events that provoked this number of casualties in a single year - 260,000 people. It never happened in Brazilian history.

To give an idea, we are making a - scientists, physicians and members of the civil society and appealing to the Supreme Court to do something because the federal government in Brazil has never taken this seriously, has never done what had to be done. And winter is coming to Brazil. We are suffering mass casualties, death during the summer. Imagine what is going to happen in three months when we get into the winter. And that's - and we have had last year a bad winter. This is going to be much worse.

KELLY: On top of everything else, I mentioned this variant that was first identified in the city of Manaus in Brazil. What do we know about it? How worried are you about this?

NICOLELIS: Well, I'm very worried because Brazil, for starters, never closed the international inflow from Europe and from Africa. So we got the British and the South African variant to start with. But then in December, November, end of November, we started getting data from sequencing of this Amazon variant, which in less than four weeks is spread through the entire country. You have to realize this is - this country is bigger than the continental U.S. in territory. And in less than a month, the whole country, we could find samples that were from the Amazon.

But the problem is worse than that. If you leave this much - this many people infected, Brazil is becoming the largest open sky laboratory for new variants to come about, because if you have this large number of people infected, you are going to have a huge number of mutations taking place. And eventually, some of these mutations can become more lethal or more infectant. So - and this is happening in Manaus. And I have no doubt and my colleagues here in Brazil, the top geneticists and virologists in Brazil are alerting the whole country that we may get other variants in a matter of weeks.

KELLY: You're bringing me to ask about what the federal government is doing. And at the top of the federal government, of course, the president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has argued against face masks. He has sabotaged shutdowns. He has told Brazilians not to be sissies about the pandemic, despite the fact, we should note, that he himself has tested positive and he had to isolate last year. Is there any sign that he is changing his tune, that he is taking this more seriously as the pandemic appears to be getting worse?

NICOLELIS: No. There is no sign. And no one is expecting him to change his mind. And in my humble opinion, he has become the public enemy No. 1 in the world related to the combat or the fight of the coronavirus. He is basically making Brazil a breeding ground that can compromise the world's effort in getting rid of this tragic moment in our history. And unfortunately, the president of Brazil has taken the wrong side of this fight since the beginning, since the beginning, and is widely recognized in Brazil and I hope is widely recognized around the world.

KELLY: May I ask what this has been like for you? I mentioned you're a doctor at Duke. You have lived in North Carolina for many years. But you have been back in Brazil, your birthplace, for the entire pandemic. What has that been like?

NICOLELIS: It has been a nightmare because I have not left this building for close to a year. Next year, next month - I'm sorry, next week is going to be a year that I have been closed in in this apartment in Brazil. I have not gone despite perhaps twice to go to the supermarket. But I see every day these projections getting worse. And I try to talk to anybody that would listen. I talk to governors. I talk to anybody, ministers of the Supreme Court, anybody that would listen.

And yet, only now, I think, most of the society here in Brazil is realizing that this is a battle that we may lose, a war that we may just lose. And we may lose half a million Brazilians before the year is over. We may get actually up - we may surpass the United States in number of deaths by the end of 2021.

KELLY: Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is a Duke University neuroscientist who is tracking the growing crisis in Brazil.

Dr. Nicolelis, thank you. Stay well.

NICOLELIS: Thank you. And I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you guys. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.