Brazil brings forward vaccine campaign as pressure builds

Sao Paulo (AFP) –


Brazil rolled out a nationwide vaccination campaign Monday, bringing it forward two days in response to growing impatience as the country battles a devastating second wave of Covid-19.

The accelerated push came in response to pressure from states including Sao Paulo, which wasted no time to launch its own inoculation drive Sunday after Brazil's drug watchdog gave emergency approval for two jabs.

The Anvisa regulatory agency approved the Chinese CoronaVac jab as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University's Covishield.

Overall, the outbreak has killed some 210,000 people -- likely to be an undercount, experts say -- in the vast South American nation of 212 million people.

More than 1,000 are succumbing daily.

"After hearing from the governors, we came to the conclusion that today we will distribute the vaccines to the states," and they "can begin to vaccinate" immediately, Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said Monday.

This came after Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria attended a ceremony Sunday shortly after the Anvisa announcement, where Monica Calazans, a 54-year-old nurse, became the first person to receive a Covid-19 jab in Brazil.

She got a shot of CoronaVac, the only option available in Brazil for now.

The national government criticized the move as a publicity "ploy" by Doria, expected to face far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in presidential elections next year.

And Bolsonaro charged: "It's Brazil's vaccine, not that of any governor." He had previously sought to discredit the CoronaVac vaccine, describing it as "Joao Doria's Chinese vaccine."

Sao Paulo authorities say more than 100 people have received the shot since Sunday, with a target of 1,000 by the end of Monday.

- Millions of doses shipped -

Pazuello met state leaders at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo Monday, from where 4.5 million doses of China's CoronaVac vaccine will be sent nationwide.

Health workers, people older than 75, residents of old age homes and indigenous populations will be the first to be vaccinated -- some 16 million people according to Christovam Barcellos of the Fiocruz research institute.

Sao Paulo has six million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine, while the health ministry announced this month it had signed a deal with the local Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, a major vaccine maker, to produce 100 million more.

Last week, Bolsonaro announced a commercial plane would be sent to India to collect two million doses of AstraZeneca's Covishield, produced there by the Serum Institute, but these have yet to arrive.

Both vaccines require two doses.

"It is an historic moment. I have been in the front line since the beginning, so I am very happy to be vaccinated," said Cilede Lira, a nurse who received her dose in Sao Paulo on Monday.

The Butantan Institute, meanwhile, applied to Anvisa on Monday for emergency use of another 4.8 million doses of CoronaVac which require separate authorization because they were bottled in Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's hardest-hit state, was expected to start giving jabs from Monday afternoon in an area near the Christ the Redeemer statue that dominates the city.

Northern Amazonas state, which has been battling record deaths and burials as hospitals run out of beds and life-saving oxygen, should start inoculating people on Tuesday morning, the government said.

An emergency delivery of 136,000 litres of oxygen for Manaos arrived in Brazil from Venezuela on Monday, officials said.

Bolsonaro reacted to the move by saying Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro "could give emergency aid to his people too."

Pazuello had initially said the government would start distributing vaccines to all 27 states on Monday for a national inoculation campaign to start Wednesday.

While many countries have already started vaccination drives, including some among its neighbors, Brazil, with its population of some 213 million, lagged behind, partly due to the standoff between Bolsonaro and Doria.

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.