Brazil may face shortages of China’s Covid-19 vaccine amid strained ties

Eduardo Baptista
·4-min read

Brazil could soon face shortages of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine due to delays in the export of key ingredients, and local politicians are concerned that strained ties with Beijing may be a factor holding up shipments.

CoronaVac, produced by Sinovac Biotech Ltd, won approval for emergency use from Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa on Sunday. The first health professionals were vaccinated on Monday in the state of São Paulo, making CoronaVac the first and for now only vaccine available in the country.

The São Paulo government has ordered 46 million doses of the vaccine, with 6 million doses made available after the regulator’s approval. However, this batch will run out in a few weeks and Beijing has not yet approved shipment of ingredients needed to make more.

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Dimas Covas, head of the Butantan Institute in São Paulo that conducted CoronaVac’s largest phase 3 clinical trials, said in a news conference on Monday that the delay was a bureaucratic issue.

The next day he asked Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to intervene, though the president has previously criticised CoronaVac, calling it the vaccine of “death and disablement”, and attacked China over the cause of the pandemic.

“If the vaccine [CoronaVac] is now Brazil’s, may our president have the dignity to defend it and solicit the support of his foreign ministry in discussions with the Chinese government,” Covas said.

Brazilian politicians are concerned the attacks on China by Bolsonaro and his allies will discourage Beijing’s cooperation.

The first Brazilian health professionals were vaccinated on Monday. Photo: AFP
The first Brazilian health professionals were vaccinated on Monday. Photo: AFP

Rodrigo Maia, president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, a federal legislative body, said on Tuesday he would meet Chinese ambassador Yang Wanming to discuss the shipment delays, but noted the lack of goodwill between the two sides.

“The Brazilian government has stymied a relationship with China. We need to at least know what is happening, what is the reason for the active ingredients not reaching Brazil,” he said.

An estimated 8.5 million of Brazil’s 210 million people have been infected with the coronavirus, and the country has the world’s second-highest death toll with more than 211,000.

In April, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son, retweeted a reference to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, a term that angered Beijing when used by US President Donald Trump in reference to the first outbreak of the disease in the central China city of Wuhan.

In response, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, Li Yang, wrote an editorial in O Globo newspaper defending Beijing’s handling of the outbreak. He asked the president’s son: “Have you been brainwashed by the United States and are now following them like cattle in opposing China?”

The vaccine has become a factor in Brazil’s presidential election next year, with São Paulo governor João Doria one of Bolsonaro’s main challengers. In October, Bolsonaro vetoed a deal between the health ministry and Doria’s São Paulo state government to purchase CoronaVac doses.

São Paulo governor João Doria is one of the main challengers to Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election. Photo: Reuters
São Paulo governor João Doria is one of the main challengers to Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election. Photo: Reuters

Separately, Bolsonaro issued a decree in August to set aside US$356 million to buy and eventually produce 100 million doses of another vaccine jointly developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

That product has also received emergency use approval from Brazil’s health regulator, but a plan to import 2 million doses fell through due to a lack of export approvals from India, where it is manufactured.

Besides the problems in India, AstraZeneca’s Brazilian partner Fiocruz said in a note to Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry on Tuesday there was also a shortage of active ingredients due to export delays in China, which could affect the planned early February delivery date.

This means Brazil must rely on CoronaVac for its immediate nationwide immunisation programme, confirming fears the country has not secured enough doses of different vaccines.

São Paulo has about 1.5 million doses of the Chinese-made vaccine while a portion of the other 4.5 million are being distributed to 10 other states by the federal government.

Butantan head Dimas Covas criticised Bolsonaro for his opposition to CoronaVac on Tuesday at an inoculation site in São Paulo.

“Until Sunday the vaccine was our president’s number one enemy,” he said. “The vaccine was worthless because it was from China; just nonsense from someone who had not the slightest idea.”

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