The Star Late Edition

Political, diplomatic blunders hit jab roll-out


FOUR months into a Covid-19 vaccinatio­n campaign marred by shortages and delays, hard-hit Brazil is still struggling to find enough doses, as political and diplomatic blunders prolong its pandemic nightmare.

Around 33 million people – 15% of the population – have received at least one vaccine dose in Brazil, a proportion still too small to have a substantia­l impact on the virus’ spread.

Targeted by a Senate inquiry over its handling of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is facing criticism for failing to secure more vaccines, including its refusal of offers to purchase millions of doses and diplomatic tension with China that may be slowing the import of vaccine ingredient­s.

“We don’t have enough doses right now to vaccinate as fast as we should,” said Margareth Dalcolmo, a pulmonolog­ist and researcher at leading public health institute Fiocruz.

Brazil has lost more lives to Covid19 than any country except the US – more than 430 000 – and has one of the highest death tolls per capita in the world. Though the current wave has eased somewhat since April, the virus is still killing a staggering­ly high number of people in the country, nearly 2 000 a day.

“We need to be vaccinatin­g two million people a day,” said Dalcolmo. As it stands, Brazil has rarely managed more than one million Covid-19 shots a day.

Brazil started out using two vaccines, Oxford/AstraZenec­a’s and Chinese-developed CoronaVac, both of which it has licences to produce locally.

The drive got a boost last month with the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine. But only about two million of the 100 million doses Brazil has ordered have been delivered so far. All three shots require two doses. Brazil could have secured more Pfizer doses faster, but Bolsonaro’s government refused an offer last August to purchase more than 70 million of them.

The far-right president, who has persistent­ly snubbed expert advice on handling the pandemic, joked that the vaccine could “turn you into an alligator” – only to change course months later and allow a deal with the US pharmaceut­ical giant.

Bolsonaro, whose government often has strained relations with China, also refused to purchase CoronaVac, calling it the vaccine from “that other country”. But a political opponent, Joao Doria, governor of Brazil’s most populous state, Sao Paulo, pursued a deal for CoronaVac anyway.

The vaccine now accounts for more than 70% of the doses administer­ed in Brazil. However, the public health centre manufactur­ing it in Brazil, the Butantan Institute, announced on Friday it would have to halt production because it had run out of the active ingredient, which has to be imported from China.

Brazil is due to start producing the active ingredient for CoronaVac itself, but only in September.

The Butantan Institute said “diplomatic problems” could prevent it from delivering new doses in June.

Last week, Bolsonaro provoked China by saying it may have created the novel coronaviru­s in a lab to wage “germ warfare”.

“There are 10 000 litres (of active ingredient for CoronaVac) ready, just waiting for the Chinese government to authorise shipment,” said Doria.

“But every time someone here makes a disparagin­g remark about China, that clearly makes it more difficult.”

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