Brazil presses for Pfizer, AstraZeneca shots to bolster slow Covid-19 vaccine roll-out

Covid-19 vaccine producer AstraZeneca is working hard to calm side effect fears over use of its shot to people across Europe.

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Brazil's government on Monday (March 8) pressed Pfizer for earlier delivery of Covid-19 vaccines and sought to buy more AstraZeneca shots from other countries, as a deadly second wave of cases adds urgency to a lethargic vaccine roll-out.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who has played down the gravity of the novel coronavirus and questioned the "rush" for vaccines, took part personally in a video call with executives at Pfizer, reaching a spoken agreement to buy their vaccine.

The government is also seeking out more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from other countries, a state governor told journalists, after Brazil's health minister said that India had halted a shipment of 8 million doses.

The AstraZeneca shot, along with a vaccine made by China's Sinovac Biotech, have been Brazil's strongest bet against a surging outbreak, with the homegrown P1 variant of the coronavirus apparently boosting transmission and reinfection.

Record Covid-19 deaths have been reported in Brazil over the past week and its hospital system is on the brink of collapse, prompting warnings from the World Health Organisation about possible regional spillover and causing renewed lockdown measures in much of the country.

Preliminary studies suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine will protect against the P1 variant, Mr Mauricio Zuma, the head of production at Brazil's Fiocruz biomedical institute, said on Monday, confirming a Reuters report on Friday.

A Brazilian study also indicates that the Sinovac shot is effective against the P1 variant, a source familiar with the study told Reuters on Monday.

If final results bear out those findings, it will be a crucial break for Brazil, which has ordered more than 200 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Sinovac shots, while dragging its feet on others.

Less than 4 per cent of Brazil's 210 million residents have been inoculated against Covid-19 due to a string of missteps by the Health Ministry, which Mr Bolsonaro has stocked with military men with little public health experience.

As early as August last year, the ministry passed up a chance to order 70 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, with delivery starting in December last year, Pfizer said in a January statement.

Although Brazil has still not signed a contract with Pfizer, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said that after Mr Bolsonaro's call, the company had agreed to start delivering 14 million doses by June, up from 9 million in its prior offer.

Following those early deliveries, Pfizer agreed to ship at least 10 million more doses per month, a health ministry official added, without saying the total size of the order.

Last week, the government said it intended to buy 100 million doses from Pfizer and 38 million from Janssen, the pharmaceutical unit of Johnson & Johnson.

Mr Guedes said Mr Bolsonaro was also scheduled to speak with the head of Janssen.

"Mass vaccination is the government's number one priority," Mr Guedes said. "We are going to vaccinate and keep the economy moving."