Raging coronavirus pandemic shuts down Sao Paulo as Brazil nears Pfizer deal

Starting on Saturday, Sao Paulo's bars and restaurants will operate only via delivery, while malls and non-essential businesses will be shut. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Brazil set a daily record for Covid-19 deaths for the second straight day on Wednesday (March 3), as a raging resurgence of the virus led Sao Paulo state to shutter businesses and the government to try to close vaccine deals with Pfizer and Janssen.

With a new coronavirus variant from the Amazon spurring more infections, according to studies, 1,910 people died from the virus in the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data.

In a year, Brazil's death toll has topped nearly 260,000, the world's second-worst after the United States.

A sputtering vaccination campaign has also put pressure on Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, who said on Wednesday he was close to an agreement with Pfizer, effectively overcoming a dispute over liability clauses.

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

"We've reached a grave moment of the pandemic. The coronavirus variants are hitting us aggressively," Mr Pazuello said in a video posted on social media, adding he expected Brazil to receive the Pfizer and Janssen vaccines by May.

In another video, he said the ministry was close to a contract to receive the "first rate" Janssen vaccine by August.

The partial lockdown in Sao Paulo, Brazil's most-populous state, underscored mounting concerns about a surging new wave of infections. The country is facing its deadliest stretch since the pandemic began due to a home-grown variant dubbed P1, scarce restrictions to slow the virus and the patchy vaccine roll-out.

Brazil is setting single-day death records as outbreaks ebb in North America and parts of Western Europe. That risks internationally isolating Latin America's biggest country as other nations seek to shore up their gains against the virus.

The Sao Paulo announcement, made by state Governor Joao Doria, irked far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes lockdowns and has long sought to diminish the gravity of the virus. But more states and cities are likely to follow Sao Paulo's lead as health systems are pushed to the breaking point.

Mr Bolsonaro attacked the lockdowns again on Wednesday.

"You cannot panic, like resorting once again to this stay-at-home policy. People are going to die of hunger and depression," he told a group of supporters.

New restrictions

Starting on Saturday, Sao Paulo's bars and restaurants will operate only via delivery, while malls and non-essential businesses will be shut, Mr Doria said. The measures are due to last two weeks, he said, adding that the state was receiving a new patient in intensive care units every two minutes.

To make matters worse, questions remain about the suitability of Brazil's stretched vaccine portfolio - comprising an AstraZeneca shot, and another vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech - against the P1 variant.

Mr Bolsonaro and other senior officials publicly chafed for weeks at Pfizer's demands for a liability waiver, saying the terms were unacceptable. Pfizer has said many other nations had agreed to identical deals.

International fears are mounting about the P1 variant, which arose in the northern city of Manaus, and has since been identified across the world, leading to tighter regulations on Brazilian travellers.

The domestic situation is particularly critical. Blame is increasingly landing on Mr Bolsonaro's lap.

Earlier this week, 16 Brazilian governors accused him of misleading the country. The national association of state health secretaries also criticised the federal government, complaining of a piecemeal approach by each state and city, calling for a national curfew and the closure of airports.

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