Authorities in Brazil have begun airlifting oxygen supplies to the Amazonian city of Manaus, where a new strain of coronavirus appears to be ripping through the community, sparking a jump in deaths by asphyxiation.

The Brazilian air force began shipping cylinders early Friday morning after scenes emerged from the city in the middle of the rainforest showing the apparent collapse of its health service, with patients struggling to breathe and doctors manually pumping oxygen because of a lack of supplies.

“There are people who are dying in the corner of the hospital as if they were drowning. The issues need to be resolved immediately,” said President Jair Bolsonaro.

Cemeteries in the city of 2m on Thursday buried 186 citizens, while the state of Amazonas — where Manaus is located — is at full hospital capacity with more than 2,000 patients admitted with the disease. At the height of its first wave of Covid-19 cases in April last year, the city buried at most 142 citizens each day — a record that has now been broken every day since Jan 10.

In response to the latest crisis, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro — no ally of Mr Bolsonaro — offered to send oxygen supplies. Brazil has also requested the use of a US military aircraft to transport oxygen cylinders, Marcelo Ramos, a federal deputy for Amazonas, told local media.

Health experts suspect the cases are probably a new variant of coronavirus, which was detected by authorities in Japan last week. The variant spreading in Manaus prompted the UK government to ban flights from Latin America, including Brazil, on Thursday.

However, doctors said there is still no evidence whether the new variant is more lethal.

“The new strain is probably responsible for the increase in cases, but we still don’t know if it is more aggressive or more dangerous, and it is not an easy question to be answered in the short term,” said Ester Sabino, director at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at University of São Paulo.

Robson Amorim, a doctor in the city, said the problem with Manaus — a city encircled by rainforest — is that it is “like an island where you can only arrive by boat or plane”.

Many of the patients in Manaus are now being evacuated to other Brazilians states and the federal government has decreed that a national vaccination programme will begin first in Amazonas.

On Sunday, Brazil’s health regulator is expected to rule on the approval of two coronavirus vaccines, the Oxford/AstraZeneca and the Chinese-made CoronaVac jabs, a decision that could pave the way for Brazil to begin an immunisation programme.

The country’s vaccine rollout has been fraught with delays and concerns are still high that the nation does not have adequate levels of ancillary supplies, such as needles, for the programme to be launched nationwide.

“The truth is that the state of Amazonas today is living a drama,” Mr Ramos said on Friday. “If the [health] ministry manages to put on six Hercules aircraft flying daily and moving 30,000 cubic metres [of oxygen], we will get out of this chaos and stabilise the system. If the government doesn’t manage to do this, we are going to have a catastrophe in the next 48, 72 hours.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice