Brazil is approaching half a million COVID-19 deaths, a toll second only to the U.S. that shows few signs of easing. Yet residents are spurning vaccines that they believe are substandard in favor of hard-to-find shots from Pfizer Inc.
In Sao Paulo, people demand the U.S. company’s shots at public clinics and often walk out if none are available. Some health-care centers have put up signs saying “no Pfizer shots” to save time. Many vaccination centers are empty, and the few that have Pfizer have massive lines.
Maressa Tavares, a 29-year-old teacher, could have gotten her shot two weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro. But at the request of her father, she’s holding out for Pfizer. “For me, it didn’t make a lot of difference which one to take, but my father has very strong beliefs,” she said.
Such reluctance is hobbling a vaccination campaign already plagued by shortages and delays. Failure to control the disease would harm not only Brazilians, who are dying at the rate of about 2,000 a day, but also threaten a global resurgence of the pandemic if the nation of 213 million becomes a breeding ground for new strains.
China’s Sinovac and England’s AstraZeneca Plc account for about 96% of shots available in the country, compared with just 4% for Pfizer, according to government data.
While doctors say residents should get any shot available, Sinovac’s CoronaVac has a far lower efficacy rate than other vaccines, and President Jair Bolsonaro bashed its “origin” and initially refused to buy it. Astra saw its usage suffer worldwide thanks to rare blood clots, side effects and a still-pending approval in the U.S.
“At first, people were afraid to get CoronaVac, because it’s Chinese, and now it’s Astra because of the reactions,” said Luiz Carlos de Souza e Silva, a nurse who helps immunize people at a public clinic in Rio. “People are really misinformed, the government took too long to come up with a vaccination plan, that creates a lot of fear.”
Hesitancy isn’t uniquely Brazilian. Amesh Adalja, who studies pandemics at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said it has existed ever since the smallpox vaccine was created in 1796. More than two centuries later, U.S. officials have promised everything from french fries to lottery prizes to persuade people. In Europe, Astra usage stalled after the blood-clot reports, and Uruguay even threw away doses.
But nowhere are vaccines needed more than Brazil. The country has given out more than 86 million shots, but that covers less than 30% of the population with a first dose and just 12% with two, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Adalja said misinformation on social media, combined with “denial from the highest levels of the government,” have hindered Brazil’s campaign.
If the virus continues to spread unchecked, Adalja said, new variants may emerge. Many have already appeared, including the highly contagious gamma, which was first documented in Brazil in November and has since spread to 64 countries. Vaccines appear effective against these variants, but countries with low vaccination rates could plunge deeper into crisis.