Brazil is likely to pass the awful mark of 500,000 COVID-related deaths in the next two days. Only the United States has a higher number of dead across the world.
Currently averaging 2,500 deaths a day, Brazil’s P1 variant has long been identified as a highly virulent cause for concern, prompting travel bans to most countries.
But researchers in Sao Paulo, one of the worst-hit cities in the country, say the P1 variant has started infecting and killing pregnant women and their unborn children in startling numbers.
Currently 42 pregnant women die every week from COVID-19; many more women are being intubated and their premature children delivered by caesarean section without consultation with obstetricians, according to medical researchers at the Brazilian Obstetric Observatory.
Dr Rossana Pulcineli Vieira Francisco from the observatory said: “The virus transmissibility is higher with this variant and I think the big problem is that the health system for maternal care in Brazil is very bad.
“In some states the patient starts treatment in one hospital, a general hospital, and when her condition starts to worsen, and she needs to deliver the baby, she will be transported while intubated because they’re not at the right hospital to do the delivery.”
This, she believes, is part of the reason Brazil is seeing a higher rate of maternal mortality.
She says obstetricians and intensivists should be working together to find the right outcomes for mother and child, otherwise it will be very difficult to stop maternal mortality during COVID.
“I think we have more cases because of the variant, and because our maternal health system is very fragile, we have this result.”
I asked her if it’s a perfect storm.
“Yes”, she replied, “and I think our only chance to stop this is the vaccine.”
The data from her and her colleagues’ research reveals that last year 10 pregnant women were dying each week from COVID-19.
This year, with the emergence of the new variant, the new figure is more than 40 per week.
Poor medical care and facilities already contributed to a high death rate for pregnant women in Brazil of 55 per 100,000 women. In Britain the figure is just 9.7.
But Dr Francisco says their research so far indicates that with COVID-19 as a factor the new number could double to over 100 per 100,000 by the end of the year.
The high overall transmission of the P1 variant (it accounts for nine in 10 coronavirus cases in Sao Paulo) combined with an overwhelmed health service, puts pregnant women at extreme risk.
The practice of intubating pregnant women and delivering the baby while the mother is in a highly stressed condition is criticised by the researchers as a “bad outcome” for both the mother and her child.
For their part, doctors working in overstretched public hospitals prioritise the life of the mother over the child and without extensive experience of intubating anyone, let alone pregnant women, they have little choice but to deliver the baby while saving the mother.
In Jardim Almeida Prado, a poor neighbourhood in the south of the city of Sao Paulo, Thais Ferreira de Lomes looks down at her tiny three-month-old baby Ezequiel, who has just been released from hospital.
Ezequiel was born 12 weeks prematurely, after Thais was intubated.
Previously fit and healthy, like most people, Thais and her family thought she was in no danger when the first symptoms of COVID developed, but they were wrong.
When her kidneys failed, the doctors said she wouldn’t live to see her third child.
She’s still scarred by her near-death experience – her uncle had died of COVID when she first got sick.
“It was great to come home, see my family, and know that God gave me the opportunity to live again,” she tearfully told me.
“Seeing so many people dying, so many people dying like my uncle died with COVID. Many people are dying with COVID.”
Even though she is over the worst of her experience, she is scared for her and her children’s futures, and worries Ezequiel might still get coronavirus.
“Even today I’m afraid because he’s tiny, he was born prematurely. I told my mother-in-law that it’s hard for me to look at him and not think that something might happen.”
At the Graiau Hospital, the maternity ward and its premature babies section where Ezequiel was cared for, are currently free of COVID cases, but doctors and nurses have no expectation that it is going to stay this way – other hospitals in the city are still treating infants with COVID-19 and their sick mothers.
Dr Patricia Sella, the medical coordinator for gynaecology – and the doctor who treated baby Ezequiel – says she has no doubt that the P1 variant, sweeping across the country, is infecting young pregnant women like she hasn’t seen before.
“In 2021 we observed an increase in pregnant women affected by COVID, likely because of the new strain.
“In 2020, in our hospital mainly, we had a very small number of pregnant women with COVID, but this year we have at least one pregnant woman hospitalised with COVID every week,” she explained to me, standing in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
She puts this down to the high infection rate of the P1 variant.
“So, actually, I think that with the change in the strain, we saw that the inflammatory process, [and] the vasculitis caused by the virus is much greater, right, and that ended up changing, bringing it to pregnant women.
“[Pregnant women] already have decreased lung compliance due to the pregnancy itself and the evolution of the pregnancy. With the COVID infection, this ends up getting worse.
“What we observed is that this strain ended up infecting pregnant women who do not have any other pre-existing conditions, so they do not have hypertension, and do not have diabetes during pregnancy. We observed that there was an increase and an increase in severity of the cases.”
In the middle-class suburb of Jardim America, Douglas Silverio proudly shows off the latest addition to his family, three-month-old Maria Helena.
She has two elder brothers Pedro, five, and Bento, three, who run around their home playing with toys while their grandmother prepares lunch.
She now lives with the family because her daughter and the children’s mother, Vanessa, is dead; killed by COVID-19.
Vanessa was just 33 when coronavirus struck.
Within five days she deteriorated and was intubated, and Maria Helena was delivered by caesarean section, coincidentally on her dad’s birthday.
Vanessa never recovered.
“I told my sons, ‘let’s say goodbye to her’.
“Pedro, who is five years old, cried too, and he said, ‘goodbye mother, you are going to heaven’.
“The youngest one did not understand what happened. And it was crazy, that was a crazy time, because we had prayed a lot for the baby, a lot of prayers from our family, but I was not ready to bury my wife in this process.”
On the day Douglas held mass for his wife’s death, baby Maria Helena was released from hospital.
He wants everyone to fear COVID and to listen to the warnings about the disease.
“I miss my wife. And she was my friend, we had a lot of plans together.
“I get scared when I see on the streets some pregnant women without masks. I say to them please take care of yourself.”
The entire medical profession in Brazil now acknowledges that the only way to fight the virus and to stop the country being a petri dish for creating COVID-19 variants that will continue to threaten the world, is for the country’s vaccination programme to speed up and reach all members of society.
The rollout is currently very slow and so far has only started to include 56-year-olds in Sao Paulo.
Many in the profession directly blame the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, for the country’s poor response to the pandemic.
He still refuses to take the vaccine, has continuously played down the danger of coronavirus and still discourages the use of face masks anywhere.
The identification of the virus as a specific threat to young pregnant women has set off the alarm bells here that COVID-19 variants are attacking younger and younger members of society, who were previously thought to be relatively safe from serious illness.
Rishi Sunak plans to ban Channel migrants from appealing deportation
The prime minister is looking to ban people arriving in the UK via small boats from appealing against deportation, Sky News understands.
Rishi Sunak has made stopping Channel migrant crossings one of his five priorities in office, promising to introduce new laws to “make sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”.
A report in The Times said the Home Office has now drawn up two plans to stop people arriving via this route from claiming asylum – either withdrawing the right to appeal against automatic exclusion from the asylum system or only allowing them to appeal after they have been deported.
A third proposal would prevent people from being able to use the Human Rights Act to stop their deportations, such as by claiming their right to family life.
Sky News understands the report to be accurate.
A Home Office spokesperson would not comment directly on the report, but said: “The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making these dangerous crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.
“Our priority is to stop this and prevent these illegal crossings, and our new Small Boats Operational Command – bolstered by hundreds of extra staff – is working hard to disrupt the business model of people smugglers.”
They added: “We are also going further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed either to their home country or a safe third country.”
Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit
US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.
US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.
But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.
Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.
The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.
In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.
The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.
There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.
The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.
Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.
Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.
He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.
The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.
What are spy balloons?
The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.
US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.
Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.
The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.
China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.
Paris Olympics: UK to host summit in bid to ban Russia from games
Opposition to Russians being allowed to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics is intensifying, as the UK government prepares to convene talks with more than 30 countries.
The summit is due to be held next Friday 10 February.
The International Olympic Committee is facing dissent over its willingness to allow athletes from Russia to compete as neutrals in Paris next year in defiance of pleas from Ukraine, following Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Ukrainian Olympic officials decided on Friday to consult on a possible boycott of the Olympics and an outright ban on Russian athletes – a stance supported by the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which border Russia and gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lithuania’s sports minister Jurgita Siugzdiniene told Sky News that her British counterpart has organised a virtual meeting next Friday involving more than 30 countries on excluding athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Olympics.
As well as European governments, officials from Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are among the global participants in the meeting. Poland has said it would be possible to build a coalition of about 40 countries, including the US, Britain and Canada.
“We should do everything [so] Russian and Belarusian athletes would not participate in the Olympics, and even under the veil of neutrality,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“That’s what we should agree and that is very important. And so in that way we wouldn’t need to discuss the boycott.”
The IOC announced last week that it was open to athletes from Russia and Belarus – which has been used as a staging post for the invasion of Ukraine – competing as neutrals in Paris if they have not actively supported the war.
“I see it as an effort to legitimise and distract attention from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“I think they can use this as a platform. So it would be very wrong that we would provide this opportunity for them.”
In the last three summer and winter Olympics between 2018 and 2022, Russian athletes have been prevented from competing with the national flag or anthem as punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said any neutral flag for Russia in Paris would be “stained with blood”.
At Friday’s meeting, Ukraine’s sports minister and president of the country’s Olympic committee Vadym Hutzait said members were united “against allowing sportspeople from Russia and Belarus from competing”.
In an appeal to sporting authorities, he said: “As long as the war is going on, as long as our motherland is being bombed, as long as we are fighting for freedom and independence, we have a great wish not to see them [Russians and Belarusians].
“There is a discussion on the international level and we have already some countries supporting us.”
He added: “The price of Ukrainians’ lives is of the highest value. We have no right for compromise … when our Ukrainians are dying.”
The IOC wants sports federations to allow any Russians or Belarusians who have not been “actively supporting the war in Ukraine” to take part and argues it would be discriminatory to ban athletes based on their citizenship alone.
It has responded to the comparison with Apartheid-era South Africa being excluded from the Olympics for more than 20 years, pointing out that UN sanctions were in place at the time.
“There are no UN sanctions in place against Russia and Belarus at this moment in time,” the IOC said.
But Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can veto any proposed resolution.
Government pressure on athletes and sports bodies should also be resisted, the IOC said, adding its stated mission is “to unite the entire world in a peaceful competition”.
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