SAO PAULO – Brazilian state governors are pursuing their own vaccine supply plans, with some expressing concern that President Jair Bolsonaro's government won't deliver the shots required to avoid interrupting immunization efforts.
Governors are under pressure from mayors, some of whose vaccine stocks have already been depleted, including three cities in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro. Northeastern Bahia state's capital Salvador suspended vaccination on Thursday because supplies are dwindling. Brazil's two biggest cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, are expected to be without shots in a matter of days.
The governor who has pushed hardest to shore up his state's own vaccine supply during the pandemic is Sao Paulo’s João Doria, a former Bolsonaro ally turned adversary. The president repeatedly criticized Doria's deal to purchase 100 million CoronaVac shots from Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac and said the federal government wouldn't buy them.
Bolsonaro reversed course in January, facing delay in the delivery of the only vaccine his administration purchased and watching as other nations began immunizing their citizens while Brazil's 210 million people were on hold.
“It it weren’t for this (CoronaVac) shot, Brazil today would be a country without vaccines,” Doria told The Associated Press in an interview. He added that he is negotiating for 20 million more doses and, if the federal government doesn't buy them, he could sell them to other governors. “It is not for a state government to secure vaccines, but here we are.”
Bolsonaro’s administration has a deal for 100 million AstraZeneca doses, but only 2 million of them have arrived, with more expected only in March, according to Fiocruz, the Rio-based laboratory that will produce the shots in Brazil.
Brazil's government last month contracted for 46 million CoronaVac shots from Sao Paulo, of which nearly 10 million have so far been delivered, and is under pressure to sign another deal for 54 million more.
Vaccines purchased by the federal government have been distributed across the nation, which is more expansive than the U.S.' contiguous 48 states. With local authorities administering the shots, the number of people immunized isn't clear, nor which locations have looming shortages.
With nearly 12 million total doses available to date, 4.9 million people have received shots, according to a consortium of Brazilian media formed last year to counter COVID-19 data blackouts.
Bahia state's Gov. Rui Costa also struck out on his own, reaching an agreement in September to purchase the rights to 50 million doses of the Sputnik V shot from Russia. It hasn't yet been authorized by Brazil's health authorities.
After ignoring Costa’s deal for months, Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said on Feb. 5 that the government will buy 10 million Sputnik V shots. Fueling pressure on Pazuello to seek alternatives, recent studies cast doubt on the efficacy of the shot his ministry had purchased from AstraZeneca against variants of the coronavirus.
One such variant has been widely detected in Amazonas state's capital Manaus, which last month saw its health system overwhelmed by the crush of patients in desperate need for oxygen. The variant is less vulnerable to some treatments.
Pazuello said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the Brazilian variant is three times more contagious than the original virus, without providing further details. He also said he expects half the population to be vaccinated by June, and the rest by year-end. Brazilian health experts say the country needs about 340 million shots for the entire population above age 18. COVID-19 shots that received authorization for emergency use have not been tested adequately in teenagers and children.
Brazil’s government last year declined to buy 70 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Bolsonaro defended the decision, saying the Pfizer contract was conditional on the government agreeing to release the company from any potential liabilities.
With sustained supply of shots from the federal government in doubt, Manaus-based state judge Etelvina Braga handed down a ruling Friday that gives Amazonas state’s government and Manaus' City Hall 20 days to secure a letter of intent with pharmaceutical companies for the purchase of vaccines. In her decision, she noted that other states, including Alagoas that is one of Brazil's poorest, already have such letters that are the first step toward securing a contract.
Maranhao state Gov. Flavio Dino, one of Bolsonaro's most vocal critics, says the pandemic and difficulties in vaccine rollout have given conservative and progressive governors common cause. Most of Brazil’s 27 governors backed the president in the 2018 election, he added, but his relationship with state authorities has soured.
“The health crisis and the lack of dialogue with Bolsonaro made the governors grow closer, even if they have deep ideological differences,” said Dino, a former judge and member of the opposition Communist Party, speaking by phone. “He acts as if he weren't in charge, so we see each other as the ones dealing with reality.”