Covid-19 vaccination still weeks away in hard-hit Brazil

By Alba Santandreu

Sao Paulo, Dec 31 (efe-epa).- Brazil, which is second only to the United States in deaths from Covid-19, is entering 2021 without a firm date for the arrival of vaccines amid numbers indicating that the dreaded second wave of the pandemic has arrived.

Mass vaccination is already underway in several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica.

Yet in Brazil, where coronavirus has claimed nearly 194,000 lives and confirmed cases stand at more than 7.6 million, the Health Ministry is expecting to begin inoculation no earlier than Jan. 20.

And even that timeline could prove optimistic, as none of the vaccine candidates has secured approval from the agency that regulates medicines, Anvisa.

Health professionals attribute the delay to poor crisis management by the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has persisted in underplaying the seriousness of the pandemic even after his own bout with Covid-19.

“There was a lack of planning. The world knew there were many vaccines at an advanced stage and various countries began the purchase of vaccines,” Rosana Richtmann, a physician at the prestigious Emilio Ribas Infectiology Institute, told Efe.

“It was risky business, as it must be in a pandemic. Everybody acted in anticipation and did deals without knowing the final result,” she said.

The Bolsonaro administration put almost all of its chips on the vaccine developed by British-based drug-maker AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which was approved this week by regulators in the United Kingdom and Argentina Anvisa, however, has not certified the medication.

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Latin America’s largest medical research center, signed a contract to obtain 100.4 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and the initial 1 million doses could reach Brazil in early February.

AstraZeneca also granted the Cruz Foundation a license to produce 15 million doses a month in Brazil using inputs provided by the pharmaceutical giant.

The government of Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s industrial heartland and most-populous region, has charted its own path, concluding an accord with China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. for 46 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine, the bulk of them to be produced in Sao Paulo by Institute Butantan, a world-renowned epidemiological center affiliated with the state health department.

Butantan, which is South America’s largest vaccine producer, took delivery early this month of enough inputs to make 1 million doses of the CoronaVac drug.

“The purchases are insufficient to the size and urgency of our country. It’s insufficient for our reality. And added to that now is the problem of running out of syringes,” Richtmann said.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry received bids to provide just 2.5 percent of the 331 million syringes it sought to buy. The sparse interest on the part of manufacturers has been attributed to the low price set by the ministry.

After several months of relative stability, Brazil has seen an alarming increase in both cases and deaths, which have been running at more than 1,000 a day in December.

Epidemiologists fear a still-bigger surge in the days following Jan. 10 as a consequence of large gatherings over the holidays.

“We could have a very large increase not only in cases, which have registered an increase since November, but also a reflection in the health system,” Dr. Raquel Stucchi, a member of the Brazilian Society of Infectiologists, told Efe.

“We are near collapse and we no longer have the same structure as a few months ago,” she said.

Authorities in Rio have closed the city’s world-famous beaches to prevent large crowds from congregating for New Year’s Eve, typically the occasion for massive, elaborate festivities.

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