Brazil hits 400,000 Covid-19 deaths as shortage blunts vaccination effort

The Brazilian Health Ministry reported 3,001 deaths on Thursday (April 29), pushing the total to 401,186. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (BLOOMBERG) - Brazil recorded more Covid-19 deaths in the first four months of the year than in all of 2020, breaching the 400,000 mark as it grapples with a shortage of shots that's threatening mass vaccinations.

The Health Ministry reported 3,001 deaths on Thursday (April 29), pushing the total to 401,186 since the pandemic started a little over a year ago. It's the second highest tally globally, trailing only the US cases rose by 69,389 in the past 24 hours, pushing the toll to 14.6 million, behind India and the US.

Brazil went from 300,000 to 400,000 deaths in about a month, less than the two it took to go from 200,000 to 300,000. The acceleration was fuelled by lax social distancing measures, a more transmissible strain of the virus and vaccinations that are still trailing the government's own targets.

"Brazil is stagnated on vaccinations, administrating fewer doses than it could," said Alberto Chebabo, an infectious disease expert who's in charge of the hospital at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

"The country is having a humanitarian catastrophe with 3,000 daily deaths, and a total of 400,000. It's an outrage."

The country had deployed about 45 million shots until April 28, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That's enough to cover 14.8 per cent of the population with one dose, and fully vaccinate 7.2 per cent.

While the pace of immunisations has picked up this month, it's unclear if the advance is sustainable amid constant delays in deliveries of ready-made boosters and inputs.

An updated schedule released by Health Ministry on April 24 showed Brazil expected to receive 159 million Covid-19 jabs from different manufacturers by the end of July, 23 per cent less than in the previous forecast.

Shortages Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, the fourth to occupy the post in the past year, warned on Monday that delays of inputs from China could have a significant impact on the immunization campaign.

Foreign Minister Carlos Franca told lawmakers on Wednesday he's seeking vaccines from a variety of partners as the pandemic's upsurge in India and tight supplies globally left Brazil scrambling for doses.

In the last few days, several cities have run out of CoronaVac shots, the main vaccine being used in the country, leaving thousands of Brazilians without a second dose, which has to be given about a month after the first.

The Health Ministry said on Wednesday it was sending about 105,000 additional doses of CoronaVac to states amid the shortages, as well as 5.1 million AstraZeneca shots. A day earlier, it had issued a statement saying second doses should be taken even if the deadline to do so had already passed.

Hopes for a faster expansion faded this week when health regulator Anvisa rejected imports of Russia's Sputnik V, citing a "lack of consistent and reliable data" on the shot's safety, quality and efficacy. The agency has also denied a request to import the Covaxin shot, produced by India's Bharat Biotech.

In addition to the two shots being currently deployed - CoronaVac, made by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd, and AstraZeneca Plc's booster, both of which have agreements to be manufactured locally - the agency has also cleared vaccines made by Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen and Covishield, which is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

As vaccinations lag, Brazil's health system continues to struggle to cope with the onslaught of patients, many of them in need of prolongued ICU stays.

Brazil's health system continues to struggle to cope with the onslaught of patients. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Federal District and 20 states have over 80 per cent of ICU occupancy, according to a Fiocruz report released this week. While it's an improvement over numbers seen in recent weeks, Fiocruz warned easing of restrictions seen across the country may lead transmission to pick up again.

The new wave of the crisis, which saw patients getting younger and a mortality rate that's already more than double what it was at the end of 2020, has added pressure on President Jair Bolsonaro, who since the start has belittled the seriousness of the disease.

This week, lawmakers kicked off an investigation of his government's response to the pandemic, which will collect evidence, interview experts and government officials over the coming months.

While its outcome is unpredictable - the president maintains a solid base of support among centrist parties and remains on good terms with the speaker of the lower house - the investigation gives Bolsonaro's foes a powerful platform to attack him.

"It's an important political movement, but the impact of the government's management of the pandemic has already happened: 400,000 deaths," Chebabo said. "There's no way to change that."

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