A vaccine delivery in Brazil. (AP)

A vaccine delivery in Brazil. (AP)

LatAm in Focus: How to Vaccinate a Hemisphere

By Chase Harrison and Luisa Leme

To get to the end of the pandemic, millions of people in every corner of Latin America will need to be vaccinated. It's an unprecedented challenge for logistics and medical systems.

The world is in the middle of one of the biggest logistical operations in human history: the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to every adult in the globe. While more than 300 million doses have been delivered in Latin America as of August 5, the region lags the world at getting shots into arms. Only Chile and Uruguay have over 50 percent of their populations fully vaccinated as countries across the hemisphere face delays in the import and distribution stages.

Thomas Tighe

“We don’t have a global infrastructure geared to providing immediate access to any product to everyone in a short period of time at a refrigerated or frozen temperature,” says Thomas Tighe, the CEO of the medical nonprofit Direct Relief, which helps advise governments and private sector logistics providers. Tighe explains that countries have attempted to expand on existing childhood vaccination systems but face barriers like limited cold storage capacity and mounting costs. In a conversation with AS/COA Online’s Chase Harrison, Tighe spotlights Mexico as an example of how the private sector has partnered with the federal government to increase the scale and efficiency of vaccine deliveries, serving as an important model for Latin America on how to boost vaccine distribution capacity.

"Basically all distribution is just hub and spokes." —Thomas Tighe

Tighe believes that despite the difficulty, the work done now to expand vaccine distribution system will provide a lasting benefit to global health systems. “The value of these investments to address some of the chronic challenges of building out of cold chain capacity for the world is hugely consequential because most of the new drugs that are being discovered require cold storage.” This, he believes, could result in major advances in care provision worldwide.

Latin America’s vaccination success hinges on Brazil, which has the largest population in the region and more than a half million coronavirus deaths. It’s also the country with the largest existing universal vaccination system in the world, providing 15 vaccines for children, nine for adolescents, and five for adults and the elderly free of charge. Brazil’s national immunization program—in place since 1973—eradicated polio, eliminated the circulation of viruses such as rubella, and distributes more than 300 million immunobiological doses in the country every year, all mostly for free

Dr. Marco Sáfadi

So why are only 19 percent of Brazilians vaccinated against COVID-19 so far? It’s a supply problem, says Dr. Marco Aurélio Sáfadi, a Brazilian infectious disease specialist and head of the Department of Pediatrics at Santa Casa de São Paulo School of Medical Sciences. In a conversation with AS/COA Online’s Luisa Leme, Sáfadi points to the federal government’s delay in acquiring COVID-19 vaccines as the main issue. Due to the lack of doses, vaccinations are slowly advancing through age groups and the national health authority set the interval between doses at the longest one possible, forcing many people who got a first dose between April and June to wait up to three months until as late as September for their second.

“Controlling this pandemic depends on providing Covid vaccines to … low-income countries.” —Dr. Marco Aurélio Sáfadi

Sáfadi is bullish that the recent increase in vaccine acquisitions will make Brazil a leader in COVID-19 immunizations in 2022. “We will be able to vaccinate all the target population,” he says. “The only reason we haven’t achieved high coverage so far is definitely the lack of enough doses of vaccine.” With the federal government due to receive 150 million doses of Pfizer, 200 million of AstraZeneca, 50 million of Coronavac, as well as 40 million doses of Johnson & Johnson by the end of the year, he estimates Brazil should eventually be able to vaccinate up to 2 million people per day.

His optimism also is based on the infrastructure and cooperation agreements already in place in the country, with two centers, Butantan and Fiocruz, able to locally produce vaccines and nearly 40,000 vaccination hubs across Brazil awaiting dose shipments. He believes Covid vaccine hesitancy is not as much of an issue in Brazil as elsewhere, as the country tends to only see vaccine adoption fade in the years after a disease is eradicated.

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Katie Hopkins produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.