By Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 6 (Reuters) - Brazil's brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, climbing well beyond an average 3,000 fatalities per day, scientists predict, as contagious new variants overwhelm hospitals.
Brazil's overall death toll trails only the U.S. outbreak, with nearly 333,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.
But with Brazil's healthcare system at the breaking point, the country could also exceed total U.S. deaths, despite having two-thirds the population, two experts told Reuters.
"It's a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It's a biological Fukushima," said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider necessary. The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunization program.
With weak measures failing to combat contagion, Brazil's COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever. On the other hand, a widespread U.S. vaccination campaign is rapidly curtailing what has been the world's deadliest outbreak.
Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately predicting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.
As soon as next week, Brazil may break the record U.S. seven-day average for deaths, forecasts the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The U.S. average for daily deaths peaked at 3,285 in January.
The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 U.S. casualties expected by then. (Reporting by Pedro Fonseca Writing by Jake Spring Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)
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