BUENOS AIRES – Health care workers were at the head of the line on Tuesday as Argentina began COVID-19 vaccination using Sputnik V, developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, amid concerns about a second wave of infections in the South American country that has already lost nearly 43,000 lives to COVID-19.
“It is a beautiful day for Argentines, the start of a new stage in which we must continue keeping everyone together, as we are now beginning this vaccination nationwide,” Health Minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia said from Hospital Posadas in Buenos Aires, where he and Health Access Secretary Carla Vizzotti witnessed the first inoculations a little before 9:00 am.
The same process unfolded at sites across Argentina’s 24 provinces, including Hospital San Martin in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, where the first injections were administered to a nurse, a janitor and a physician, respectively.
The provincial governor, Axel Kicillof, also got the jab in front of the cameras to show confidence in the safety and efficacy of the Sputnik V medication, the only one of the three vaccines approved by Argentina’s National Administration of Medications, Food and Medical Technology (Anmat) that is currently available in the country.
The initial round of vaccinations will go to health-care workers in the major cities, which account for most of Argentina’s 1.59 million COVID-19 cases. Lab technicians who handle test samples will also be among the first to get the shot.
Emilio Macia, head of the intensive care unit at Hospital Fiorito, told EFE that as someone with a management role, he got vaccinated to set an example.
“There are different positions and opinions in every kind of community, medical and scientific, but for myself, the data reported by the Gamaleya Institute was sufficient,” he said, also pointing to the approval from Anmat.
And while President Alberto Fernandez was unable to get the vaccination on the first day as he had planned because it is not yet approved for use with people over the age of 60, the government did make good on its promise to begin inoculations before the end of 2020.
The first 300,000 doses arrived in Argentina last Thursday on the same plane carrying Dr. Vizzotti and other members of the delegation who traveled to Russia to receive a technical briefing and inspect the plants where the Sputnik V drug is produced.
After sorting at a facility in suburban Buenos Aires, the vaccines were delivered to the designated distribution points on Monday.
Most of the existing and prospective COVID-19 vaccines need to be administered in two doses to achieve maximum effectiveness and the Health Ministry estimates that Argentina will need 54.4 million doses.
The country is home to around 44 million people, but the vaccine is not recommended for certain segments of the population such as children under 16.
The government has commitments for 51 million doses, including 20 million of the Sputnik V drug, 22.4 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca with Oxford University and 9 million doses to be made available through the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative.
Buenos Aires is also in negotiations with other vaccine producers, including US-based Pfizer and China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm.
Fernandez had initially planned to rely on the AstraZeneca drug, having signed an agreement in August that would allow the vaccine to be produced in Argentina under license.
But AstraZeneca encountered delays and in October, Vice President Cristina Fernandez (no relation to the president) began talks with the Russian ambassador to Argentina that led to a deal for the Sputnik V medication.
Discussions continue with Pfizer, whose vaccine has been approved by Anmat, but Gonzalez Garcia says that the world’s No. 2 drug-maker is setting unreasonable conditions.
Russia has faced criticism for authorizing use of Sputnik V prior to the conclusion of large-scale clinical trials.
Argentina and Belarus are the only other nations to have approved the Russian vaccine and opponents of Fernandez’s center-left government question his decision to begin mass vaccination with Sputnik V.