By Ricardo Brito and Pedro Fonseca
BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The spread of coronavirus in Brazil could be about to slow, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday, amid reports the transmission rate has fallen below the key level and early signs of a gradual decline in the weekly totals of cases and fatalities.
The cautious optimism comes despite figures again showing a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases and death toll in the last 24 hours, cementing Brazil's status as the world's second biggest COVID-19 hot spot after the United States.
According to ministry data, Brazil has seen a drop in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases to 304,684 last week from a peak of 319,653 in the week ending July 25. The weekly death toll has fallen to 6,755 from a peak of 7,677 in the last week of July.
A study by Imperial College London, meanwhile, showed that for the first time since April, Brazil this week registered a transmission rate below 1, according to Brazilian media reports. A so-called "R rate" below 1 indicates that each infected person will infect less than 1 person, thus reducing the epidemic.
"In a way, it is a trend. We have to see how the disease behaves in the next two weeks to see if there is a significant drop," Arnaldo Medeiros, Secretary of Health Surveillance, told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday.
He stressed, however, that the apparent slowdown is no reason to ease up on preventive measures such as wearing masks and social distancing.
Later on Wednesday, official ministry figures showed 49,298 new coronavirus cases and 1,212 deaths from the disease caused by the virus in the past 24 hours.
Brazil has now registered 3,456,652 cases of the virus since the pandemic began, while the official death toll from COVID-19 has risen to 111,100, according to ministry data.
(Reporting Ricardo Brito and Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Sandra Maler and Aurora Ellis)