UPDATE 2-Brazil to start vaccinating Jan 20, as UK bars travelers over new virus variant
(Recasts with travel ban, changes date program to begin, adds details on new virus variant, PAHO, mayor's assn comment)
RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Brazil aims to begin nationwide COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 20, the head of the national mayor's association said on Thursday, as Britain banned arrivals from the country over fears of a new homegrown coronavirus variant.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been lambasted for downplaying the severity of the world's second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, is under mounting pressure to begin vaccinations as a second wave of infections surpasses the first.
He also faces the prospect of international isolation after Britain said it would ban travelers from Brazil, several other South American countries and Portugal over fears of the new virus variant.
Japan's health ministry said on Sunday it had detected the new variant in four travelers from Brazil's northern Amazonas state. This one features 12 mutations, including one also found in highly infections variants recently discovered in Britain and South Africa that have begun circulating around the globe.
Researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Amazônia Foundation said this week the new variant found in Japan likely appeared in northern Brazil between December and January. They said it could be contributing to the sharp rise in cases in Amazonas state, although they were conducting more studies to ascertain if it is more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus.
The state of Amazonas, where nearly 6,000 people have died from COVID-19, is now suffering a devastating second wave that is pushing emergency services to a breaking point.
Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, was not ready to pin the surge in infections in Amazonas on the new variant.
"It is happening also in many different cities and states, probably due to the holidays, the summer, with more travels and people going out, and the relaxation of social distancing measures," Barbosa said.
Jonas Donizette, the president of the national mayor's association, said in a statement on Thursday that vaccinations would begin on Wednesday if all goes as the government plans.
"If it's not on the 20th, for whatever logistical problem, it will be on Thursday 21," he wrote. "Inoculations will begin with 8 million doses, distributed to 5 million Brazilians."
The government is planning a Jan. 19 ceremony to mark the start of inoculations, according to a source involved in the plan.
The government has declined to give an official start date for vaccinations, but has said inoculations could not begin before Jan. 20. The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Two vaccines - one made by AstraZeneca Plc and another developed by China's Sinovac Biotech - will form the bedrock of the government's vaccination plan. Both have applied for emergency use in Brazil, with health regulator Anvisa expected to decide on Sunday whether to authorize them.
Vaccination of the country's population will take 16 months at most, Deputy Health Minister Elcio Franco said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Brazil has already imported 6 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine and is sending a plane to pick up 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, made by India's Serum Institute.
The Health Ministry said the plane's departure from Recife in northeastern Brazil had been delayed until late on Friday. (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca and Eduardo Simoes Editing by Brad Haynes, Nick Macfie and Bill Berkrot)
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