SANTIAGO – More than 1.5 million people have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose in Chile since a mass rollout began on Feb. 3.
Those inoculation efforts make that country the undisputed leader in that category in Latin America and have earned it widespread praise globally.
“Mass vaccination is the hope for getting our lives back and embracing our loved ones,” Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, 71, said Friday after receiving the first dose of the vaccine developed by Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech in the southern town of Futrono, where he is currently vacationing.
A total of 748,417 adults 73 years or older received the vaccine through Thursday, with the remaining recipients being health care personnel. Six out of 10 people vaccinated thus far in that country of 19 million inhabitants have been women.
The small town of Laguna Blanca in Chile’s far south leads the way with 83.6 percent of the population vaccinated, while the nearby southern town of Rio Verde is next at 49.2 percent.
“This vaccine is safe. It’s effective. And we’ve made an enormous effort,” said the conservative head of state, whose management of the pandemic was called into question a few months ago.
Chile, which began vaccinating health workers at intensive care units on Dec. 24 and kicked off its mass inoculation campaign last week serving people 90 years and older, has administered 5.58 vaccine doses per 100 inhabitants, according to figures through Feb. 10 from the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data website.
That figure far exceeds the global average – 1.9 doses per 100 inhabitants – and also surpasses the rates in Brazil (1.94 doses per 100), Argentina (1.18) and Mexico (0.56).
The United States is the leader in the Americas with 13.53 doses per 100 inhabitants, while Israel tops the global rankings with 69.46 doses per 100 inhabitants, according to that website.
“The number of vaccines that are being (administered) daily in Chile is absolutely an (outstanding) achievement and helps combat the anti-vaccine movement. On Thursday alone, 221,459 doses were injected,” Claudio Castillo, a public health expert at Universidad de Santiago de Chile, told EFE.
The Chilean government’s goal is to inoculate the at-risk population of nearly 5 million people – including people 65 and older, the chronically ill, health care personnel, security forces and critical workforce employees – by the end of the first quarter and to have 80 percent of the total population vaccinated by June.
Experts say there have been two keys to the speed of Chile’s free and voluntary vaccine rollout: its skill in negotiating the purchase of a large number of vaccine doses and an extensive, nationwide primary care network that had also facilitated previous successful campaigns, including a polio vaccine deployment in 1961.
Chile moved quickly – and without any geopolitical constraints – in negotiating vaccine purchases, a strategy that has enabled the country to receive nearly 4 million doses of Sinovac’s vaccine to date.
“The Chinese vaccine is not yet very (widely distributed). It’s mainly in China, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil. Now, more countries are being added, but at first it didn’t have that … seal of approval that Pfizer’s (vaccine) had. Chile’s strategy of diversifying contracts was very good,” Castillo said.
Chile, which also has approved Pfizer’s and AstraZeneca’s vaccines and is studying others developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and Janssen Vaccines (Johnson & Johnson), has agreements in place for more than 35 million doses from different laboratories and others obtained through the Covax mechanism, a World Health Organization (WHO)-led effort that aims to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have access to coronavirus vaccines.
“The main challenge for a country like Chile, which has ideal logistical conditions, is having sufficient stock,” said Cristobal Cuadrado, a scholar at Universidad de Chile’s School of Public Health.
A further test will come in a few weeks when flu shots begin to be administered in the Southern Hemisphere, since people will need to wait at least two weeks between that vaccine and their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been around 765,000 confirmed cases and roughly 19,200 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Chile, which is currently battling a second coronavirus wave.