By Pedro Fonseca and Jake Spring

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil set daily records on Wednesday for new COVID-19 cases and related fatalities, as the world’s second-worst outbreak hurtles toward the milestone of 100,000 dead amid easing lockdowns.

Brazil is the country worst hit by COVID-19 outside of the United States in both its death toll and case count. The 69,074 new confirmed cases and 1,595 additional deaths reported by the Health Ministry pushed the country past 2.5 million infections and 90,000 killed.

President Jair Bolsonaro has fought against restrictions on economic activity, and the disease has advanced as governors and mayors have yielded to the pressure. In some cases, Brazilians have packed into bars and crowded public squares without masks, often in defiance of local rules.

Last week, Brazil recorded 7,677 deaths from COVID-19, the most fatalities in any week since the pandemic began, defying repeated predictions that the outbreak had peaked.

“Brazil is experiencing the worst phase of the pandemic,” said Alexandre Naime, head of the department of infectious diseases at Sao Paulo State University. “Paradoxically, public policy and personal behavior are going in the opposite direction, as if we are not living through a daily tragedy,” he added.

Bolsonaro’s government announced Wednesday that it will lift a ban on foreign travelers flying into the country that has been in place since March, so long as they have health insurance coverage for their trip.

Easing restrictions come as new hotspots within Brazil are gaining steam daily.

Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous and hardest-hit state, has been working through a backlog of previously unregistered cases, reporting more than 26,000 cases on Wednesday alone.

While Sao Paulo and neighboring Rio de Janeiro were hit first by the virus, health officials have expressed rising concern over outbreaks in the center-west and far south of the country, where the arrival of winter favors contagion.

“We present national data but it’s like we have (multiple) COVID-19 pandemics with different regions of the country behaving differently,” health vigilance secretary Arnaldo Correia de Medeiros said in a televised press briefing.

Those conditions have turned Brazil into a global testing ground for drug companies to test potential vaccines.

A Brazilian research institute on Wednesday said it had reached an agreement with China’s Sinopharm to start what would be the fourth major trial of a potential vaccine in the country.

Bolsonaro himself has flouted social distancing guidelines by joining supporters at rallies around Brasilia, the capital, in recent months. He fell ill with coronavirus this month, and spent weeks in partial isolation before recovering.

The right-wing populist has argued that the economic damage from lockdowns is worse than the disease itself, which he has played down as “a little flu” that can be cured by unproven treatments, involving the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca and Jake Spring; Additional Reporting by Gabriel Araujo and Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Brad Haynes, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)

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