RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians are dying in record numbers from Covid-19. Intensive care units in a growing number of cities are full or near capacity as more contagious variants drive up cases. Elderly people have begun sleeping outside vaccination centers hoping to score a shot from the country’s limited stock.
But this is no time for new restrictions on businesses and transit, President Jair Bolsonaro said defiantly on Thursday. Instead, his government is placing tremendous hope in an experimental nasal spray, under development in Israel to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients, that the president has called a “miraculous product.”
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo is scheduled to travel to Israel to meet scientists who are developing the spray, which has only undergone preliminary tests and is not being used in routine patient care anywhere. Mr. Bolsonaro’s government says it intends to test it on gravely sick 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.
Marcia Caldas de Castro, a Harvard University professor who studies global health, “and the way we measure the cost is in lost lives.”
Mr. Bolsonaro was an early and effusive champion of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which he ordered the government to mass produce. He continued to sing its praises this week, even after a team of experts from the World Health Organization strongly advised against its use, citing studies that have found it ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign is off to a slow and chaotic start because the government was late to start negotiating access to vaccines, whose safety and efficacy Mr. Bolsonaro has called into question.
Wednesday, the president sought to reassure Brazilians that help was on the way by announcing that his administration intended to sign a memorandum of understanding in Israel to test the nasal spray, which he said could emerge as “the real solution to treating Covid.”
The Israeli scientists who are developing the nasal spray say it’s too early to tell whether it will prove to be a pandemic game changer.
The drug, called EXO-CD24, aims to prevent “cytokine storms,” which are overwhelming immune-system responses to Covid-19 that can cause serious inflammation of the lungs, organ failure and sometimes death.
Initial clinical trials showed that 31 of 35 patients suffering from severe symptoms were discharged from the hospital after receiving two to five days of treatment with the drug, said Dr. Nadir Arber, a researcher at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv who helped develop it. In the early trials, he said, the drug was administered by inhalation, but the goal is to administer it as a nasal spray.
Dr. Arber said he was optimistic, but urged caution. “We are still at the beginning of the process,” he said.
The first trials did not include a placebo for comparison. The treatment has not undergone advanced clinical trials and its efficacy has not been assessed in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.