Brazil’s government has 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 Americas biggest nation.
Brazil’s health ministry announced that the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, landed in Sao Paulo on Friday (January 22) before being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where the 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 said, 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 the 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 immunisation 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.
“Brazil is honoured to have a great partner to overcome a global crisis. Thank you for helping us with vaccine exports from India to Brazil,” president Jair Bolsonaro said in a tweet. “Dhanyavaad (Hindi for thank you).”
“The honour is ours, President @jairbolsonaro to be a trusted partner of Brazil in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic together,” India’s prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted in reponse. “We will continue to strengthen our cooperation on healthcare.”
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 on 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 on Thursday the Health Ministry could begin distribution of the imported AstraZeneca shots Saturday (January 23) afternoon, following a quality control inspection.
Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunisation, 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 on 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 immunisation plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups. “We are doing what is possible to get the vaccine,” Bolsonaro said on 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 2,14,000 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 immunisation 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.
There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus stemming from allies of Bolsonaro who criticised 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, said 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.