SAO PAULO – Brazil has become the first Latin American country to receive an initial batch of vaccines against COVID-19, a development that coincides with an upward trend there in coronavirus cases and deaths.
The first 120,000 doses of CoronaVac arrived on Thursday in Sao Paulo after that state’s government reached a deal with its developer, China’s Sinovac Biotech.
The agreement covers both imports of the vaccine and technology transfers for its development in Brazil by the Instituto Butantan, a biomedical center that is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the Southern Hemisphere.
The vaccine already has been tested on 13,000 volunteers in Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous region and the one with the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19.
Based on preliminary results, the vaccine is capable of triggering an immune response within 28 days after its administration in 97 percent of cases.
CoronaVac is now in the final stage of its clinical evaluation. Once that phase is concluded, the vaccine would need to be evaluated by health authorities for its potential use in immunization campaigns starting early next year.
“Over the next 40 days, we’ll have 46 million doses of this vaccine, equivalent to the entire population of this region, said Sao Paulo state Gov. Joao Doria, CoronaVac’s chief promoter in Brazil.
Separately, Brazil’s Anvisa health regulator signed a pact in June with AstraZeneca to obtain 100 million doses of the vaccine the United Kingdom-based pharmaceutical giant is developing in partnership with the University of Oxford, which is likewise in clinical trials in Brazil.
Vaccine contenders being developed by American multinational Johnson & Johnson and a joint venture of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and American multinational Pfizer also have been given the go-ahead for clinical trials in Brazil.
The quest for a vaccine has not been divorced from politics in a country with around six million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 168,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
Rightist President Jair Bolsonaro, 65, and the 62-year-old Doria, who is seen by the head of state as a threat to his hopes of winning a second term, are both coronavirus survivors.
But they have been at odds over how to deal with the public health crisis since Brazil’s first COVID-19 case was detected eight months ago in Sao Paulo city, the country’s largest with 12 million inhabitants.
While Doria implemented fairly stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus, Bolsonaro, who famously dismissed COVID-19 as “a measly flu,” remains cavalier about the disease.
Their differences also extend to the vaccine, with Bolsonaro having expressed contempt for the CoronaVac and said his government will not buy it.
Tensions between the two politicians escalated further last week when Bolsonaro celebrated Brazilian regulators’ decision to temporarily halt clinical trials of the CoronaVac following the death of a volunteer for reasons unrelated to any effect of the vaccine.
That decision was slammed by Instituto Butantan, although after harsh words were exchanged, Anvisa authorized the resumption of the trials and gave that world-renowned epidemiological center the green light for large-scale imports of the CoronaVac, the first batch of which arrived on Thursday.
“It’s a crucial moment in the life of the country. We can’t waste time with bureaucratic red tape or fruitless political or ideological disputes,” Doria said on Thursday in a press conference.
Brazil, which ranks second behind the United States in COVID-19 deaths and third behind the US and India in coronavirus cases, has seen an upward trend in both categories in recent months.
“The downward trend ceased. It stabilized and now it’s rising again,” infectious disease expert Paulo Andrade Lotufo told EFE.
The pandemic’s resurgence coincides with a steady return to normality in Brazil and has increased pressure on hospitals in different parts of the country, including Sao Paulo.
Health authorities in that state said on Thursday that the average occupancy rate in its intensive care units now stands at 43 percent, up from 20 percent a few weeks ago but down from a peak level of 95 percent in April and May.
The Sao Paulo government has ordered the postponement of all elective surgeries in the state as a preventive measure aimed at freeing up beds for coronavirus patients.
Hospital occupancy rates are at their highest level since August in Sao Paulo city, although Mayor Bruno Covas, who is seeking re-election in a Nov. 29 runoff, said on Thursday the situation remains “stable.”
Authorities in Sao Paulo state and Sao Paulo city, meanwhile, both have ruled out the possibility of reimposing social-distancing measures that were eased in early July, when bars, restaurants and other commercial establishments were allowed to reopen.