Nelson Almeida & Eugenia Logiuratto
SAO PAULO (AFP) – Brazil’s health regulator gave emergency approval on Sunday for two coronavirus vaccines, kicking off a mass inoculation campaign amid a devastating second epidemic wave killing over 1,000 people in the vast South American nation daily.
Monica Calazans, a 54-year-old nurse in Sao Paulo became the first person in Brazil to receive the Chinese CoronaVac jab after the Anvisa watchdog’s highly-anticipated ruling.
Anvisa also approved AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s Covishield shot for use in the nation whose COVID-19 death toll now exceeds 209,000 – surpassed only by the United States (US).
As Anvisa met in the capital Brasilia, activists gathered outside to inflate a larger-than-life effigy of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, his hands dripping with metaphorical blood.
Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the virus and railed against lockdowns, face masks and other “hysteria”, has come under renewed fire for his handling of the epidemic after a fresh outbreak that has hit the northern Amazonas state particularly hard.
While many countries have already started vaccination drives, including some among its neighbours, Brazil with its population of some 213 million has lagged behind.
And CoronaVac has been dragged into a political standoff between Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly tried to discredit it, and Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a defender.
Doria attended the ceremonial first vaccination on Sunday of Calazans at an event that also saw Vanusa Costa Santos, a member of the Kaimbe tribe, receive a jab.
Pazuello denounced the Sao Paulo event as a “marketing ploy” by Bolsonaro’s rival.
Health workers, people older than 75, residents of old age homes and indigenous populations will be the first to be vaccinated once the national campaign starts in earnest. Both vaccines require two doses.
CoronaVac is produced by China’s Sinovac firm with the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo. It has been approved for emergency use in China, Indonesia and Turkey. The AstraZeneca jab is produced by the Serum Institute in India, has been approved in Britain, Argentina and India, and is under review by the European Union (EU).
Sao Paulo already has six million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine, and the Health Ministry announced this month it had signed a deal with Butantan to produce 100 million more.
Earlier this month, Brazil said the Chinese vaccine had been shown to be 50 per cent effective in preventing infection with the virus.
As for the Oxford vaccine, results published in December found it was between 62 per cent and 90 per cent effective, depending on the dosage.
Both appear to fall short of the more than 90 per cent effectiveness reported for vaccines developed by US pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and Moderna.
Last week, Bolsonaro announced a commercial plane would be sent to India to collect two million doses of Covishield, though New Delhi, which has just launched its own mass inoculation campaign, has yet to give the green light.
Sunday’s approval came amid a devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen hospitals in the Amazon rainforest city of Manaus running out of beds and life-saving oxygen.
With hospitalisations reaching even higher levels than during the first wave, Manaus has again had to deploy refrigerator trucks to store corpses as emergency oxygen supplies were rushed in from outside and patients flown to hospitals in other states.
According to official figures, Manaus last Wednesday saw a fourth straight day of record burials.
The state is also believed to be at the origin of a new virus variant recently detected in Japan, and which scientists warn is likely more contagious.
It is not clear if this variant is the reason for the resurgence.
A 10-day curfew of 7pm to 6am entered into force in Amazonas last Friday in a bid to stop the rapid viral spread, and a court has compelled the state government to shut non-essential businesses for 15 days.
Bolsonaro blames state governors and mayors for the health and economic crisis unleashed by the coronavirus, claiming the federal government has distributed all the resources needed to combat the epidemic.
His stance prompted protests in several cities last Friday.