Portugal has lowest Rt rate in Europe – but new variants cause for ‘heightened concerns’

The rate of virus transmission in Portugal – the so-called Rt number – has reduced to 0.73, and is now the lowest in Europe.

But that hasn’t changed the country’s ‘ranking’ for having the highest number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants – nor the fact that new variants are a cause for ‘heightened concerns’.

Say reports, the latest report from INSA (the national health institute Dr Ricardo Jorge) “points to the presence of various coronavirus variants in Portugal”.

“The most widespread” is a variant that originated in Spain, reports Diário de Notícias. It has been detected in 54.7% of 532 samples sequenced during the week January 10-19.

Then comes the Kent (or British) variant, representing roughly 43% of cases in the country (according to prime minister António Costa at a recent press conference).

Experts initially feared this variant could account for 60% of cases by this week, but confinement seems to have “avoided this expansion”.

There has also been the ‘surprise’ of a ‘variant related to the one that spread through California. 

Say reports today, João Paulo Gomes of INSA, has attested to this ‘growing’: it is a mutation that allows the virus to attach itself better to human cells and gives greater resistance to neutralizing antibodies (in other words, it reduces immunity).

The last time anyone mentioned this mutation, it was responsible for 6.8% of cases in Portugal, again according to samples sequenced during the week of January 10-19 (click here).

A fourth variant active on Portuguese territory is the Brazilian strain, though Luís Mendes of Unilabs, Portugal, has told RTP this is still being found in “low numbers”.

The South African variant “has also been detected in Portugal” – but again, there isn’t a great deal of data on this in the public domain.

This is nonetheless where the answers to the question ‘why are we still in lockdown?’ can be found: all these variants “present genetic mutations that can make the virus more contagious and more resistant” (to vaccines/ natural immunity).

According to DN, the scientific community is ‘particularly concerned about the British, Brazilian and South African variants’. 

Clinical pathologist Daniel Fonseca e Silva in charge of a testing laboratory at the IPO cancer hospital in Porto explains these three variants have “a mutation in the 501 position” which allows the virus to connect more efficiently with human cells.

All this weighs heavily on the ‘good news’ about Portugal’s Rt number, because if lockdown was lifted anytime soon, and people were suddenly given more ‘freedom of mobility’, fears are that the Rt number would quickly rise, giving the most transmissible mutations a field day.

In short, the ‘lowest Rt number in Europe’ doesn’t help us much, particularly as the country is still shackled to the ‘worst in the world’ label, due to the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants.

Explains INSA’s data, the last 14-days have seen numbers reduce, but they are still running at above 960 per 100,000 people.

During the peak of Portugal’s third wave, this rolling 14-day incidence of new cases was running at 1,600 per 100,000.

Rt numbers per region

Madeira has the highest Rt number currently (1.15), followed by Lisbon and Vale do Tejo and the Algarve at 0,75, the Alentejo at 0,77, the north with 0,68 and finally the Azores with 0,58.

Hospitals “more relieved” but shortage of contact-tracers

As reports have been stressing all week, hospitals are now much calmer than they were during January.

Today’s bulletin shows numbers have fallen considerably in the last 24-hours: 380 less people in Covid wards, 43 less in intensive care units.

Today has also been the fourth day running in which less than 200 Covid deaths have been recorded. Today’s total is 149 – again with the majority of these (80) in the Lisbon/ Vale do Tejo area.

Issues now are with the numbers of people carrying out epidemiological inquiries (essentially contact-tracing and then accompanying infected people). 

Explains Público with information from APAH (the Portuguese association of hospital administrators), there are currently ‘thousands of these in arrears’ – meaning people who may not even realise they have the virus have not been contacted and will thus be going about their admittedly confined lives potentially spreading infection to the few people they meet.

Health secretary António Lacerda Sales has admitted in parliament: “It’s urgent that we resolve the lack of personnel” available to carry out epidemiological inquiries.

He suggested there are 4,000 inquiries ‘pending’.

Health minister Marta Temido added staff numbers have been increased for this task – from 500 in December to ‘more than 1,100 by February 4’ “but even so it won’t be enough” to keep on top of the situation.

[email protected]