Brazil begins roll-out of 2 million COVID vaccines amid protests

Thousands join rallies in several Brazilian cities against President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the deadly pandemic.

Brazil began rolling out two million ready-to-use AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines made in India, the state-funded Fiocruz Institute said on Saturday, as protesters rallied in several cities against President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

The institute said it started to distribute the vaccines after another distribution programme, which involved a deal between Brazil’s government and AstraZeneca, was stalled because of a delay in an active ingredient shipped from China.

Brazil expected to produce up to 100 million doses of its vaccine locally as part of that agreement.

Following a considerable diplomatic effort that included Bolsonaro sending a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, AstraZeneca agreed to supply Brazil with the two million ready-to-use doses.

Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, has faced increasing criticism for his handling of the vaccine roll-out and for his government’s inability to get a surging pandemic under control.

Brazil has recorded the second most COVID-19 deaths in the world – more than 215,000 – as well as at least 8.7 million cases since the start of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Francisca Alves Xavier, 102, gets a shot of China’s Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine during a priority vaccination programme for the elderly at Bezerra de Menezes Asylum in Brasilia on January 22 [Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

The country is struggling to manage a major surge in infections and hospitalisations, including in the hard-hit Amazonas state, where hospitals have been pushed to their limits amid dwindling supplies of oxygen and other equipment.

The AstraZeneca roll-out comes after Brazil also began distributing the Sinovac Biotech Ltd vaccine last weekend, which was developed in partnership with Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute. That distribution had also been plagued by delays in shipping.

The Sinovac vaccine has shown a disappointing efficacy of just over 50 percent in Brazilian trials. Despite the government’s increasing reliance on the Chinese vaccine, Bolsonaro had previously decried it as useless.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed with Oxford University, has a 70.4 percent efficacy, according to preliminary trials.

Slumping approval rating

Meanwhile, support for Bolsonaro has dropped sharply amid the current pandemic wave, according to a Datafolha poll released late Friday.

Forty percent of respondents said Bolsonaro’s administration was bad or terrible, up from 32 percent in an early December survey. Just under a third of respondents rated Bolsonaro’s government as good or excellent, compared with 37 percent in the previous poll.

That is the biggest drop in Bolsonaro’s approval rating since his presidency began in 2019, the Folha de S Paulo newspaper reported.

Thousands of people, angered over the government’s response to the pandemic, joined protest caravans in several Brazilian cities on Saturday.

The demonstrations, organised by leftist parties and organisations, saw some 500 vehicles parading along Brasilia’s Esplanade of Ministries and blaring their horns, their windows painted with slogans like “Bolsonaro Out”, “Impeachment Now” and “Vaccination for Everyone”.

People participate in a motorcade to protest against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the coronavirus in Sao Paulo, Brazil [Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

Similar protests involving hundreds of cars also took place in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

The protesters also objected to the end in December of emergency financial assistance that had helped some 68 million Brazilians – nearly one-third of the population – cope with the devastating effects of the pandemic.

However, despite the discontent, another Datafolha poll released late on Friday found that 53 percent of respondents were against Congress opening impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro for his handling of the pandemic, compared with 50 percent in a previous survey.

Those in favour of impeachment fell to 43 percent from 46 percent previously.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies