RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s government is eagerly awaiting the Friday arrival of 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine from India, while experts warn the precious cargo will do little to shore up an insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.
Brazil’s health ministry on Thursday announced the shipment of the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. It is expected to clear customs in Sao Paulo before being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based, the ministry said. Fiocruz has a partnership with AstraZeneca and Oxford for the vaccine’s distribution and production.
The 2 million doses from India only scratch the surface of addressing the shortfall, Brazilian public health experts told The Associated Press, as millions more doses will be needed to cover priority groups, and shipments of raw materials from Asia have been delayed.
“Counting doses from Butantan (Sao Paulo state’s Butantan Institute) and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, told The Associated Press. “It will interfere with our capacity in the near-term to reach collective immunity.”
A flight from India planned for last week was postponed, derailing the federal government’s plan to begin immunization with the AstraZeneca shot. Instead, vaccination in the nation of 210 million people began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where Butantan has a deal with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.
Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan have yet received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredient.
The Indian Embassy in Brasilia didn’t respond to a request for comment on the announced shipment nor the cause for last week’s delay.
Fiocruz said in a statement Thursday the Health Ministry could begin distribution of the imported AstraZeneca shots Saturday afternoon, following quality control inspection.
Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunization, and it used materials imported from China to bottle an additional 4.8 million shots. The health regulator must approve use of the latter batch before it can be distributed to states and municipalities across Brazil.
Scheffer estimated in a report he published Jan. 18 that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians included in priority groups without any vaccines. The government’s own immunization plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups.
“We are doing what is possible to get the vaccine,” President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday night in his weekly Facebook live broadcast, adding that his government will make free, non-mandatory vaccination available to all Brazilians.
Brazil has recorded 214,000 deaths related to COVID-19, the second-highest total in the world after the United States, and infections and deaths surging again.
While Brazil has a proud history of decades of immunization campaigns, in this pandemic it has struggled to cobble together a complete plan and suffered multiple logistical pitfalls.
“The vaccination plan is badly done, in general,” said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s important that the information be transparent and clear for the population to know how this vaccination process will be done.”
There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus — namely those stemming from allies of Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government — might explain the delay behind getting the required inputs.
Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, told AP that such a reading is overly simplistic amid heightened global demand.
“Of course, since Bolsonaro isn’t on good terms with the Chinese government, he doesn’t really have the direct access,” Stuenkel said from Sao Paulo. “There is a chance that the bad relationship does wind up putting Brazil further down the line of recipients, but not because the Chinese are saying actively, ‘Let’s punish Brazil,’ but perhaps because other presidents have a better relationship.”
The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported Wednesday that Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello met with China’s ambassador in Brasilia and that Bolsonaro had requested a call with China’s Xi Jinping. Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro on international relations, said in a television interview the same day that Brazil is seeking suppliers from other countries.
“Negotiations are well advanced,” Martins told RedeTV!. He added that there is “a big fuss over nothing.”
Lawmakers including House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and the president of the Brazil-China parliamentary group, Sen. Roberto Rocha, also met with the Chinese ambassador.
Butantan had planned to supply Brazil’s Health Ministry with 46 million doses by April. It is awaiting the import of 5,400 liters of the active ingredient before the end of the month to make about 5.5 million doses, and new shipments from China depend on authorization from the Chinese government, according to a statement from its press office.
Fiocruz had initially scheduled the delivery of 100 million doses to begin in February and 110 million more in the second half of the year. As of Dec. 30, its plan was down to delivering 30 million doses by the end of February, but the first delivery has been postponed to March, the institute said.
“Brazil doesn’t have vaccines available for its population,” Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist at Fiocruz who has treated COVID-19 patients, said this week. “That’s absolutely unjustifiable.”