Brazil Covid-19 deaths hit record amid rush to secure vaccines

Hospitals across Brazil are reaching capacity. PHOTO: AFP

SAO PAOLO (BLOOMBERG) - Brazil reported another record number of deaths from coronavirus as the country rushes to seal new vaccine deals.

Deaths rose by 1,972 in the last 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry, pushing the total to 268,370. Confirmed cases increased by 70,764, to 11,122,429. Brazil trails only the US in number of deaths globally, and ranks third in infections.

Hospitals across the country are reaching capacity, as a combination of year-end and carnival gatherings and a new, more contagious variant contribute to a spike of infections even as the virus recedes in most of the world. At the same time, a short supply of vaccines is slowing a mass immunisation campaign in the country of 212 million.

After months of negotiations with Pfizer, the Health Ministry announced last week the intention to purchase 100 million doses from the company. It's also in talks to buy 38 million shots from Johnson & Johnson and 13 million doses from Moderna. Despite the advance in conversations, contracts are yet to be signed with the companies. On Monday, Minister Eduardo Pazuello said the country will likely have 28 million doses available in March, compared to initial estimates of up to 46 million, according to local media reports.

Separately, Sao Paulo city plans to buy 5 million doses of J&J's vaccines and nine Northeastern states led by Bahia agreed on terms to purchase 25 million units of Gamaleya's Sputnik V, according to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

Brazil currently relies on Sinovac Biotech's and AstraZeneca's boosters, which are produced locally in partnerships with the Butantan and Fiocruz institutes, respectively. Last week, 8,000 litres of vaccine inputs arrived in Sao Paulo, which will allow Butantan to produce 14 million more doses.

Local governments have announced a new round of restrictive measures to halt the spread of the virus amid a still slow vaccine roll-out. Sao Paulo state ordered all non-essential businesses, such as shops and gyms, to stay shut for the next two weeks. Rio de Janeiro also tightened rules, ordering bars and restaurants to close earlier.

State governors are now in talks to come up with an unified plan to set similar restrictions nationwide, an attempt to bypass President Jair Bolsonaro's objections to social distancing initiatives, Folha de S.Paulo reported. Bolsonaro has repeatedly urged governor to allow business to reopen.

The new restrictions may put more pressure on Brazil's economy, which contracted by 4.1 per cent in 2020, the biggest full-year drop since the data series began in 1996. The Senate on Thursday backed a US$7.8 billion (S$10.5 billion) round of Covid-19 aid for 40 million Brazilians to ease the economic toll of the crisis.

The bill will now be analysed by the lower house before the government can pay the new round of cash handouts.

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