RIO DE JANEIRO: In Brazil, a mass inoculation campaign against COVID-19 will only be possible from March and will rely on the AstraZeneca vaccine, a senior health official at the country's leading public biomedical institute told Reuters.
The comments come as a fresh wave of coronavirus infections devastates Brazil, which has the world's second-highest death toll from the pandemic with over 180,000 dead, behind only the United States.
As Britain and the United States begin immunisations using the shot developed by Pfizer, pressure is mounting on Brazil's Health Ministry to quickly make a vaccine available amid criticism the government did not secure a diverse enough supply of potential candidates.
"It's not a 100 metre sprint," said Marco Krieger, vice-president of health production and innovation at the Fiocruz institute, in an interview. "We at Fiocruz are prepared for a marathon."
Krieger said the Rio de Janeiro-based institute, which has a deal to produce the AstraZeneca shot, expects to deliver 100 million doses in the first half of 2021 and another 110 million doses in the second half. That timeframe depends on approval from the health regulator Anvisa.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was Brazil's main bet, with a 1.9 billion reais (US$371.6 million) deal in June securing raw materials and the transfer of production technology to Fiocruz.
Despite long being the world frontrunner, AstraZeneca's shot has been overtaken by Pfizer's which became the first vaccine to be rolled out in Britain.
Brazil has moved to secure the Pfizer shot, signing a letter of intent for more than 70 million doses. But only 2 million of those would be delivered in the first three months of next year, according to the government's national vaccination plan.
In Sao Paulo, the country's wealthiest and most populous state, Governor Joao Doria has secured 60 million doses of the vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech. Efficacy data for the shot, however, has still not been released and it remains unclear if the federal government will buy the vaccine.
Therefore Krieger said he believes the AstraZeneca option will continue to be the most important for Brazil, although it will take time for significant immunity to be built up.
"Only in the second half of next year will we have a level of vaccination cover sufficient to significantly reduce the circulation of the virus," he said, adding that 30 per cent to 40 per cent of Brazil's population could be inoculated by the middle of 2021.
"We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we're still in the tunnel," he said.