Latin America Covid-19 death toll tops 500,000 as Brazil cases spike

Brazil has registered nearly 7.6 million cases of the virus since the pandemic began. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRASILIA (REUTERS) - Deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean from Covid-19 topped 500,000 on Tuesday (Dec 29), and cases soared above 15 million amid holiday festivities, according to a Reuters tally of figures in official government reports.

More than a third of the deaths occurred in Brazil, according to the Reuters tally, Latin America's largest country, which separately reported its worst daily death toll from the novel coronavirus since Sept 15.

More than a quarter of Latin America's deaths were in Mexico which, like Brazil, has struggled with a fresh wave of infections, with rising hospitalisations forcing Mexico City into a semi-lockdown.

Regional health authorities have expressed concern about the impact of year-end celebrations on health systems that were stretched to the limit in mid-2020.

Brazil recorded 58,718 additional confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, along with 1,111 deaths from Covid-19, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

Brazil has registered nearly 7.6 million cases of the virus since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 192,681, according to ministry data.

Efforts to roll out new vaccines in countries including Mexico, Chile and Argentina have provided a glimmer of hope for some parts of the region but Brazil and several other Latin American nations have struggled to get such efforts underway.

With pressure mounting on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to begin vaccinating the population, the government on Tuesday urged producers of Covid-19 vaccines to speed up their applications for use in the country.

A senior Health Ministry official vowed to improve dialogue with Pfizer after it complained of an onerous emergency use application and reiterated that vaccinations could start as soon as Jan 20.

Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, has said he will not take any coronavirus vaccine whatsoever.

The vaccines are seen as crucial to ending the pandemic in Brazil, home to the world's second-deadliest outbreak after the United States. Yet basic details about the government's vaccine plans remain sketchy, with regulators yet to approve the AstraZeneca shot Brazil has already bought, and China's Sinovac vaccine struggling to produce late-stage data.

The federal government waded into an awkward scrap with Pfizer, whose vaccine is already being used in Britain and the United States, over what the US firm described as a surprisingly onerous procedure to apply for an emergency use authorisation.

In a news conference, Deputy Health Minister Elcio Franco defended the government, saying it was hamstrung by local laws which only allow it to sign vaccine purchase agreements once producers have emergency use authorisations or full authorisations.

He vowed to seek a better dialogue with Pfizer, but said he could not force the company to apply for an emergency use authorisations or a full regulatory application.

Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He urged vaccine makers to apply for emergency use authorisations as soon as possible, adding that in a best case scenario, immunisations in Brazil could begin on Jan 20.

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