Brazil’s government on Friday received 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine from India, but experts warned the shipment will do little to shore up an insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.
Brazil’s Health Ministry announced that the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, landed in Sao Paulo before being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based. Fiocruz has an agreement to produce and distribute the vaccine.
The 2 million doses from India only scratch the surface of the shortfall, Brazilian public health experts told The Associated Press, as far more doses will be needed to cover priority groups in the nation of 210 million people, and shipments of raw materials from Asia have been delayed.
“Counting doses from Butantan (a Sao Paulo state research institute) and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” said Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. That shortage “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 began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where Butantan has a deal with its producer, Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.
Countries around the world, particularly developing nations, are struggling to source sufficient vaccines for their populations. Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan has yet received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredients.
India’s foreign ministry said Friday evening at a press briefing in New Delhi that vaccines had been dispatched to Brazil and Morocco.
“As you can see, the supply of Indian-made vaccines is underway, both as gifts as well as on commercial basis,” ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.
Fiocruz said in a statement Thursday the Health Ministry could begin distribution of the imported AstraZeneca shots Saturday afternoon, following a 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 on Friday approved use of the latter batch for distribution to states and municipalities across Brazil.
Scheffer estimated in a report he published Monday that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians 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.
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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 — stemming from allies of Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government — might explain the delay in 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.”
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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 leader 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.
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“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.” ___ AP journalist Ashok Sharma contributed from New Delhi
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has authorized the dispatch of oxygen to Brazil to help its South American neighbor treat people sickened amid another wave of the coronavirus, despite frosty relations between the two governments and Venezuela’s own lack of hospital supplies.
Maduro approved departure for a convoy of six tanker trucks loaded with oxygen in a national broadcast Sunday on state TV. It’s destined for the city of Manaus in the northern state of Amazonas.
“Let this oxygen arrive quickly to the people of Brazil,” Maduro said. “Let the people of Brazil know that to the best of our ability, we are ready to support Brazil.”
Venezuela is gripped by a deepening humanitarian crisis, which critics blame on the failed socialist policies of Maduro’s government. Tensions are high between Maduro and the right-wing government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s government is one of more than 50 nations around the world that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, rather than Maduro, who maintains control over the nation.
The health secretariat of Amazonas state said in a statement the Venezuelan government had donated the oxygen in the trucks, totaling 107,000 cubic meters (3.8 million cubic feet). That is the equivalent of about one and a half days of oxygen demand in the state capital Manaus, according to figures released last week.
White Martins, the multinational that provides oxygen to Manaus’ public hospitals, previously said it could divert some of its supply from Venezuela. It didn’t immediately comment on whether it was involved in this shipment of oxygen from Venezuela to Manaus.
A second coronavirus wave in Brazil has overflowed hospitals in Manaus, exhausting oxygen supplies. The Venezuelan trucks were expected to reach Manaus as early as Monday night, according to the Amazonas health secretariat’s statement.
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The city is receiving an average of four Brazil air force flights per day to bolster oxygen stocks, along with one shipment per day from the city of Belem near the mouth of the Amazon river, the statement said.
Venezuela reported its first coronavirus cases in mid-March and immediately imposed quarantine measures. Venezuelan officials report roughly 119,000 coronavirus illnesses so far and a little more than 1,000 deaths.
Experts say that the relatively low cases of coronavirus in Venezuela by comparison to Brazil and other neighboring nations is due to its isolation after years of political, economic and social crisis.
Despite Maduro’s gesture, health workers in Venezuela say they struggle to meet their patients’ needs in hospitals that often lack running water, basic medicine and enough doctors and nurses.
Argentina’s Senate passed a law legalizing abortion early Wednesday after a marathon 12-hour session, a victory for the women’s movement that has been fighting for the right for decades.
The vote means that abortion will be legalized in Pope Francis’ homeland up to the 14th week of pregnancy, and also will be legal after that time in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s life. It will have repercussions across a continent where the procedure is largely illegal.
The measure was passed with 38 votes in favor, 29 against and one abstention, after a session that began late Tuesday.
It was already approved by Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies and has the support of President Alberto Fernández, meaning the Senate vote was its final hurdle.
Argentina will be the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion and the vote was being closely watched. With the exceptions of Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City, Mexico’s Oaxaca state, the Antilles and French Guiana, abortion remains largely illegal across the region.
Argentina until now has penalized women and those who help them abort. The only exceptions were cases involving rape or a risk to the health of the mother, and activists complain even these exceptions are not respected in some provinces.
Just hours before the Senate session began Tuesday, the pope weighed in, tweeting: “The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God. He came into the world as each child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable so that we can learn to accept our weaknesses with tender love.”
A previous abortion bill was voted down by Argentine lawmakers in 2018, but this time it was backed by the center-left government. The outcome of the latest vote, however, had still been considered uncertain. That was partly due to the fact that the political parties, including the governing Peronist movement, gave their legislators freedom to vote as they chose. Two of the 72 senators were absent, and 43 of the remaining 70 senators were men.
Outside the Senate, pro- and anti-abortion activists gathered, with the bill’s supporters wearing the color green that represents their pro-abortion movement.
Argentina’s feminist movement has been demanding legal abortion for more than 30 years and activists say the bill’s approval could mark a watershed in Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church’s influence has long dominated.
“Our country is a country of many contradictions,” said Ester Albarello, a psychiatrist with a network of health professionals that supports the bill, who was among the demonstrators outside the congressional building. “It is the only one in the world that brought members of its genocidal military dictatorship to justice with all the guarantees. But we still don’t have legal abortion. Why? Because the church is together with the state.”
Also outside the legislature, a group that calls its members “defenders of the two lives” set up an altar with a crucifix under a blue tent. Dressed in a white smock and light-blue face mask, teacher Adriana Broni said that even if the abortion law won approval, “I will not teach that it is a right to kill, murder, a baby who has no voice.”
Supporters said the bill seeks to eradicate the clandestine abortions that have caused more than 3,000 deaths in the country since 1983, according to figures from authorities.
In addition to allowing abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, the legislation also will establish that even after that period, a pregnancy can be legally terminated if it was the result of rape or if the person’s life or integral health was in danger.
It will allow conscientious refusal to participate in an abortion for health professionals and private medical institutions at which all doctors are against the procedure. But they will be required to refer the woman to another medical center. Conscientious objection also could not be claimed if a pregnant woman’s life or health was in danger.
An intensive care nurse in Mexico City on Thursday became the first person in Latin America to receive an approved coronavirus vaccine.
Mexico began administering the first 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in a broadcast ceremony in which Maria Irene Ramirez, 59, got the first shot, under the watchful eyes of military personnel who escorted the vaccine shipment.
“This is the best present I could have received in 2020,” said Ramirez. ”The truth is we are afraid, but we have to keep going because someone has to be in the front line of this battle.”
Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell waxed poetic, saying, “Today the stage of the epidemic and its treatment changes, to a ray of hope.”
Zoé Robledo, director of Mexico’s social security system, called it “an unforgettable Christmas. We are sure this is going to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”
Other doctors and nurses rolled up their sleeves in the chill morning air at outside vaccination stations in the cities of Toluca and Queretaro. The country’s 1.4 million health workers will be the first to get the shots, followed by the elderly, those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease, and teachers.
Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico was the first country in Latin America to get the vaccine, though others were close behind.
Chile also began its inoculation program Thursday, with 42-year-old nurse Zulema Riquelme getting the first jab as President Sebastián Piñera looked on.
“I am calm, happy, very excited,” Riquelme told Piñera, who noted “a lot of people have gone to a lot of effort to reach this moment.”
Chile said it had received 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and has a deal for a total of 10 million. Health workers and the elderly will be first in line.
In Costa Rica, which is the third country in the region to begin using the Pfizer vaccine, the first shot was given Thursday to Elizabeth Castillo, 91.
“This moment represents for the country the beginning of the road to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado said at the event that opened the vaccination.
Argentina, which has run into problems obtaining the Pfizer vaccine, received a flight carrying 300,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
Argentina plans to become the first country in Latin America to administer the Russian vaccine starting next week. It won’t yet be given to people older than 60 due to a lack of testing data.
Argentine Health Secretary Ginés González García vowed the Russian vaccine was safe and said it could be used on those 60 and older once Russian authorities certify it. He said 5 million more doses were expected to arrive in January.
While Mexico got only 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first shipment Wednesday, Ebrard said about 53,000 more doses would arrive by Tuesday, about 1.4 million doses in January and a total of about 11.75 million by mid-year.
Ebrard said two vaccines are currently undergoing Phase 3 studies in Mexico and another three are awaiting approval to start.
Other countries around the region are engaged in testing several vaccines, in studies that involve tens of thousands of volunteers.
Latin America has been among the regions hardest hit by the pandemic.
Mexico reported over 1.35 test-confirmed cases so far and 120,311 deaths, the fourth-highest toll in the world. However, estimates based on excess deaths this year suggest Mexico’s real death toll is closer to 180,000.
Argentina has 1.5 million cases and over 42,000 deaths, while Chile has seen 590,000 cases and 16,000 deaths.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health on Thursday reported 37,614 new COVID-19 cases with 691 more deaths, raising the national count to 6,204,220 with 171,460 deaths.
Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, after the United States, and the third largest caseload, next to the United States and India.
After seeing a decline in daily deaths and cases since September, the Latin American country has witnessed a rise in both categories in November, accompanied by an increase in hospital occupancy in large cities.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second largest city, has seen occupancy rates at both public and private hospitals top 90 percent. Local authorities are considering reopening field hospitals to deal with the overflow of patients.