RIO DE JANEIRO – 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.
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.”
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.
“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