RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday downplayed the Omicron coronavirus variant amid a surge in hard-hit Brazil, ruling out new containment measures as he defended the pursuit of herd immunity through widespread infection.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro (AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN)

In the country with the world’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll, Bolsonaro said the arrival of the Omicron variant posed little threat, even as experts warn of growing pressure on hospitals.

“Omicron has not killed anyone,” the coronavirus-skeptic president said after municipal authorities in the state of Goias announced the country’s first death due to the new variant.

“The person who died in Goias already had serious problems, notably with the lungs,” which is what killed them, Bolsonaro told the Gazeta Brazil news outlet. Experts say the variant is already the most widespread in Brazil.

Bolsonaro cited provisional evidence of Omicron being more contagious but less deadly than some earlier variants.

“Some even say it is a vaccinating virus. Some smart and serious people, not aligned to the pharmaceutical industry, say Omicron is welcome and could herald the end the pandemic,” the far-right president added.

– Herd immunity –

He insisted that the Brazilian economy could not afford another lockdown, and defended the controversial approach of allowing people to get infected for so-called herd immunity against the virus to take root.

“Herd immunity is a reality. A person immunized with the virus has a lot more antibodies than a vaccinated person,” Bolsonaro insisted.

“Me, for example, I am not vaccinated and I am very well.” Bolsonaro recovered from a coronavirus infection in July 2020, has said he will not get vaccinated, and has opposed health passes given to vaccinated people to access certain places as a breach of freedom.

In October, a Brazilian Senate commission approved a damning report that recommends criminal charges, including for crimes against humanity, be brought against the president for his Covid policies.

He has had social media posts deleted numerous times for spreading misinformation and inciting people to violate social distancing and mask-wearing policies.

Bolsonaro has suggested vaccines could turn people into “crocodiles,” and has endorsed the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, despite scientific studies showing it does not work.

Covid-19 has claimed more than 620,000 lives in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States.

The health ministry said Tuesday the country had registered more than 70,700 new cases in 24 hours — a rate eight times higher than two weeks earlier.

At the deadliest peak of the pandemic last year, hospitals were pushed to the brink of collapse in many areas and the daily death toll at one point exceeded 4,000.

The vast country of 213 million people was slow to start its vaccination campaign under a president who had minimized Covid-19 as a “little flu.”