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.

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.

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 of the pandemic," the far-right president added.

Asked in Geneva about Bolsonaro's statements, the director of the World Health Organization's emergency program, Mike Ryan, said, "No virus that kills is welcome, especially if death and suffering can be avoided."

According to the Brazilian UOL news outlet, Ryan added: "The fact that the virus is less severe does not mean that the disease is mild."

Covid-19 has claimed more than 620,000 lives in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States
Covid-19 has claimed more than 620,000 lives in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States AFP / Joao Paulo Guimaraes

Bolsonaro insisted that Brazil's 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 the 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."