Brazil turns the tide with Covid-19 vaccines despite setbacks

The number of Brazilians with at least one jab has almost tripled to cover 67.6 per cent of the population.
The number of Brazilians with at least one jab has almost tripled to cover 67.6 per cent of the population.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRASILIA (AFP, REUTERS) - Despite a slow start plagued by much controversy that still haunts President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's coronavirus vaccination campaign is now one of the fastest-paced and farthest-reaching in the world.

While boasting a globally renowned vaccination system, the country of 213 million people only started coronavirus inoculations in January, several weeks after the United States, many European countries and others in South America.

The roll-out was delayed by political bickering under a president who belittled the pandemic and spread vaccine falsehoods, then hamstrung by logistical difficulties in the vast country.

But the country with the world's second-highest Covid-19 death toll - more than 588,000 fatalities reported to date - has seen its coronavirus vaccination rate pick up and its death rate tumble as imported jabs started arriving and local production began.

In the past three months, the number of Brazilians with at least one jab has almost tripled to cover 67.6 per cent of the population - slightly higher than in the US with 63.4 per cent and Argentina with 63.8, according to an AFP count.

The figure for those fully vaccinated is much lower, at 36 per cent - but enough to put Brazil in third place among the world's 10 most populous countries.

With vaccine supply uncertain at first, Brazil decided to focus on giving a first dose to as large a number of people as possible, and opted for a long interval between the first and second jab.

Logistical delivery problems have largely been ironed out through trial and error, and supply concerns are a thing of the past with Brazil now producing its own AstraZeneca and Sinovac jabs under licence.

"The acceleration was seen from May/June, with the arrival and much more consistent supply of vaccines," Mr Jose David Urbaez of the Society of Infectious Disease told AFP. As a result, from more than 2,000 daily deaths in June, there are now fewer than 600 per day.

Today, Brazil - with 214 million shots given - ranks fourth in the world in terms of the most doses administered, after China, India and the US.

It ranks third in terms of administering the most doses daily - some 1.5 million on average per day in the last week.

States have also been giving shots to teenagers and booster shots to vulnerable people for several weeks.

However, Brazil’s federal government announced on Thursday (Sept 16) the intent to halt Covid-19 vaccinations for most adolescents, citing a death under investigation and adverse events after some 3.5 million teens have already been immunised.

At a news conference, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga criticised states and cities for jumping the gun by vaccinating 12- to 17-year-olds without health issues that put them at risk of severe Covid-19. He said the vaccination of this group was supposed to roll out only on Wednesday.

Mr Queiroga said healthy adolescents who have already taken one shot should not take a second – effectively seeking to halt the nationwide immunisation of teenagers.

In a statement, federal health regulator Anvisa said there was "no evidence to support or demand changes" to its approval for children from 12 to 17 to be vaccinated with Pfizer shots. 

Mr Queiroga did not specify a reason for requesting a halt but said there were 1,545 adverse events registered, with 93 per cent of them in people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – the only one approved for minors in Brazil.

He also said one death was registered, in the city of Sao Bernardo do Campo just outside the Sao Paulo state capital. Anvisa said in its statement that it was looking into the death of a 16-year-old who received a first dose earlier this month.

“At present, there is no definite causal relationship between this case and the administration of the vaccine,” it said.

Sao Paulo state, the country’s most populous, said it has already vaccinated nearly 2.5 million people under 18 years old.

Governor Joao Doria said on social media that Sao Paulo would not stop vaccinating adolescents.

Mr Queiroga said evidence about the efficacy of vaccines for healthy teenagers was not yet certain, although clinical trial data has shown them to be effective in preventing illness.

It remains to be seen if his comments will carry much weight. According to Mr Carlos Lula, the president of the association of state health secretaries, the majority of states do not plan to halt vaccinations for this age group.

One problem the country does not have is vaccine scepticism: More than 90 per cent of Brazilians have told pollsters they want the jab.

Brazil's recent success came despite a chaotic pandemic outset under the leadership of Mr Bolsonaro, who at its height dismissed the virus as a "little flu", fought lockdowns, questioned face masks and rejected various offers of vaccines while pushing unproven drugs such as hydroxychloroquine.

Last December, the President, who had himself contracted Covid-19, suggested the Pfizer vaccine may turn people into crocodiles, cause women to grow beards or men to become effeminate. He long sought to discredit China's Sinovac inoculation, even as the governor of Sao Paulo fought to have it approved.

If the Bolsonaro government had started to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers in mid-2020, like many other countries, "by May or June (this year) Brazil would have already vaccinated its target population", said Mr Urbaez.

Mr Bolsonaro's handling of the outbreak has contributed to his popularity tumbling to a low 22 per cent, according to a poll on Thursday, with frequent protest marches calling for his resignation.

There are dozens of outstanding impeachment bids against him, and a Senate committee is investigating his government's pandemic response.

Mr Bolsonaro is also the subject of several criminal investigations - one of them concerning allegations that he sat on evidence of corruption in a Covid-19 vaccine deal.

The President, who came to power in 2019, has rejected all claims of government corruption, instead denouncing the legislature's inquiry as a political antic aimed at forcing him from office.

He will seek reelection in 2022, but worried about his chances, he has launched a series of attacks on the judiciary and the very electoral system itself.

"The acceleration of vaccination will have very positive consequences for Brazil, such as the reduction in the number of deaths and greater reopening of economic activity, but is unlikely to translate into an increase in popularity" for Mr Bolsonaro, said political analyst Mauricio Santoro.

At a health centre in Brasilia, retiree Monica de Barros, 57, received her second vaccine dose. "Hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided by firmer and less denialist action," she told AFP.