RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilians die in record numbers from Covid-19. Intensive care units in a growing number of cities are full or almost full as more contagious variants accelerate cases. Elderly people have started sleeping in front of vaccination centers in hopes of getting a shot from the country’s limited population.

However, this is no time for new restrictions on business and transit, President Jair Bolsonaro said defiantly on Thursday. Instead, his government has enormous hopes for an experimental nasal spray that is under development in Israel, to treat seriously ill Covid-19 patients, the president has called a “miraculous product”.

Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo is scheduled to travel to Israel on Saturday to meet with scientists who are developing The spray that has only undergone preliminary testing and is not used anywhere in routine patient care. Mr Bolsonaro’s government plans to test it on critically ill patients in Brazil, where more than 260,000 people have died from the virus and where daily deaths hit a record 1,910 on Thursday.

“Brazil goes down in history as a case study of what failed leadership can do in a health emergency,” said Marcia Caldas de Castro, Harvard University professor of global health. ”

Mr Bolsonaro was an early and exuberant advocate of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which he ordered the government to mass-produce. He continued to praise it this week, even after a World Health Organization team of experts strongly advised against its use, citing studies that found it ineffective and potentially dangerous.

Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign starts slowly and chaotically as the government started too late negotiations on access to vaccines, the safety and effectiveness of which Mr Bolsonaro has questioned.

While doctors struggle to screen patients while intensive care units fill, Mr Bolsonaro has renewed his war with governors and mayors over company closures, social distancing and wearing masks.

On Wednesday, the president tried to reassure Brazilians that help was on the way by announcing that his government intended to sign a memorandum of understanding in Israel to test the nasal spray.

The Israeli scientists developing the nasal spray say it is too early to say if it will prove to be a pandemic game changer.

The drug called EXO-CD24 is said to prevent “cytokine storms” that overwhelm the immune system’s responses to Covid-19 and can cause severe pneumonia, organ failure and sometimes death.

Initial clinical studies showed that 31 out of 35 patients with severe symptoms were discharged from hospital after two to five days of treatment with the drug, said Dr. Nadir Arber, a researcher at Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv who helped develop the drug. In the early studies, he said, the drug was given by inhalation, but the goal is to give it as a nasal spray.

Updated

March 5, 2021, 7:20 p.m. ET

Dr. Arber said he was optimistic but cautioned caution. “We are still at the beginning of the process,” he said.

The first studies did not include a placebo for comparison. The treatment has not been carried out in advanced clinical trials and its effectiveness has not been assessed in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Testing the drug The effectiveness requires additional testing phases and the comparison of the results of the patients treated with it with those who received a placebo. Such studies often take several months.

“There is still a long way to go,” said Tomer Hertz, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Ben Gurion University. “It is not possible to tell if it will work at this point.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is close to Mr Bolsonaro, has made contradicting statements about the spray. The Israeli Prime Minister has called it a “miracle drug” but also acknowledged that its effectiveness has not been proven.

This week marked the deadliest in Brazil since the outbreak began a year ago, prompting officials in several states to order a new round of corporate curfews and restrictions.

Mr Bolsonaro spoke to supporters Thursday and railed against these measures.

“You didn’t stay home,” said the president. “You weren’t a coward. We have to face our problems. “

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Mr Bolsonaro said he regretted every loss of life but demanded to know, “How long will you all keep crying?”

The outbreak in Brazil, one of the worst in the world, has caused global concern as new, more contagious varieties dominate much of the country. Scientists say there is worrying evidence that the variants can make re-infection more likely, and they are urgently investigating whether these variants reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

On Friday, World Health Organization officials described the spate of cases in Brazil as deeply worrying and warned it could wreak havoc far beyond the country’s borders.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the director of the organization’s health emergencies program, said concerns about reinfection had grown. “There is no question that some of the cases that are occurring now are reinfections, possibly due to dwindling immunity or the fact that new variants may be evading the immunological protection of natural immunity,” he told reporters.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, described the situation in Brazil as “very, very worrying”.

“If Brazil is not serious, it will continue to affect the entire neighborhood and beyond,” he said. “This is not just about Brazil.”

Fourteen Brazilian governors sent a letter to Mr Bolsonaro on Thursday demanding that the federal government redouble its efforts to get more vaccines. As of Friday, approximately 6.6 million people in Brazil – approximately 3.1 percent of the population – had received at least one dose of vaccine.

“If we do not act quickly, the future will not judge us kindly,” wrote the governors.

Mr Bolsonaro’s government has deprecated the Chinese vaccine, which has so far been the most widely used in Brazil. Last August, Pfizer accepted an offer of 70 million doses of its vaccine. It signed up for the WHO vaccine procurement system known as Covax, but only requested the minimum dose required to participate: enough for 10 percent of a country’s population.

Still, Mr Bolsonaro suggested Thursday that the government do as well as expected in the global vaccine race.

“You have idiots, people on social media and in the press who say, buy more vaccines,” Bolsonaro said Thursday, sounding angry.

He added, “There are none for sale in the world.”

Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro, Letícia Casado from Brasília and Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem.

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