The Brazilian government finally kicked off a nationwide coronavirus vaccination campaign on Monday, with first injections in front of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over the city of Rio de Janeiro.
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A nurse and an 80-year-old former homeless man were the first to receive a dose of the vaccine at dusk in Rio state, which has the country’s highest death rate with 151 per 100 deaths 000 inhabitants.
The states of Goiás (central-west) and Santa Catarina (south) also launched vaccinations on Monday, as Brasilia had just given the signal for a national campaign, two days earlier than expected, under pressure from the State of Sao Paulo which began to vaccinate on Sunday.
The country of 212 million people, the second most bereaved by COVID-19, has only six million doses. And this campaign starts several weeks after the other epidemic foci, the United States or Europe.
The logistical challenge is sizeable in this nation of continental dimensions where more than 210,000 Brazilians have officially died from the coronavirus – a figure greatly underestimated, according to specialists.
It was only on Sunday that the situation broke down, when Brazilian regulator Anvisa approved the emergency use of two first vaccines, China’s CoronaVac and Britain’s Oxford / AstraZeneca.
“After hearing the governors, we decided to distribute vaccines today even to the (27) states” of the Brazilian federation, which “can start vaccinating” immediately, announced Monday morning the Minister of Health Eduardo Pazuello.
The minister met with governors at Guarulhos airport, near Sao Paulo (south-east), from where 4.5 million doses of CoronaVac began to depart to the various regions of the country, the 1.5 million remaining being intended for the population of the State of Sao Paulo.
In the northern state of Amazonas, hit hard by the second wave of the pandemic and where the capital, Manaus, has deplored deaths due to a lack of oxygen in hospitals, the doses were expected Monday evening for a start of vaccinations on Tuesday.
“This is Brazil’s vaccine, not any governor’s vaccine,” President Jair Bolsonaro said from Brasilia.
A radical change in tone for the far-right leader, who had previously repeatedly decried “the Chinese vaccine of Joao Doria”, the governor of the state of Sao Paulo.
Potential rival of Mr. Bolsonaro for the presidential election of 2022, Mr. Doria hastened, Sunday, to organize an official ceremony, in front of the cameras, for the first vaccination in Brazil in his state, as soon as the CoronaVac was approved by the Anvisa.
“A marketing stunt,” reacted the Minister of Health, indicating that the national vaccination campaign would officially begin Wednesday. Before finally moving it to Monday, under pressure.
CoronaVac, produced by the Chinese firm Sinovac in collaboration with the Butantan Institute, under the supervision of the State of Sao Paulo, is the only vaccine currently available in Brazil.
More than 100 people were vaccinated in Sao Paulo as of Sunday, and local authorities hope to exceed 1,000 injections on Monday.
“This is a historic moment. I’ve been on the front line from the start, so I’m very happy to be vaccinated, ”said Cilede Lira, a nurse who received a dose of CoronaVac on Monday morning in Sao Paulo.
The Butantan Institute on Monday filed with Anvisa an emergency use request for 4.8 million additional doses that require further authorization because they were bottled in Brazil.
For Christovam Barcellos, researcher at the Fiocruz benchmark institute, vaccination in Brazil “starts late and with an insufficient number of doses”.
According to him, Brazil has more than 16 million people supposed to be vaccinated as a priority (healthcare workers, the elderly living in retirement homes and the indigenous population), far more than the number of doses available.
The government has tried to negotiate the import from India of two million doses of the second vaccine authorized by Anvisa on Sunday, that of Britain’s AstraZeneca / Oxford.
Those doses were due to arrive last weekend, but the Indian government, which began a massive campaign on Saturday, has yet to give the green light.