Since last November, Brazil has been experiencing a health crisis with a high number of hospitalisations, including many among young people. So far, the country has reported more than 14 million cases and the death toll exceeds 400,000. Infections and deaths have declined in recent weeks, but neither Brazil nor any other country can let its guard down, a lesson the world needs to learn, the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus opened the WHO's bi-weekly briefing with these words and then gave the floor to Brazil's health minister, who explained that the South American giant is accelerating its vaccination campaign with a nationwide roll-out designed to achieve better distribution of immunisations.
Marcelo Queiroga said the Brazilian government has implemented measures on two fronts: fighting the pandemic and keeping workers in their jobs to maintain a source of income.
The minister considered it unfair to say that there had been delays in administering vaccines and said that by next Monday more than 16 million immunisations will have been administered.
"We are working together with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) to be able to access the COVAX vaccines as soon as possible. We are also going to acquire more doses through bilateral agreements such as the one we will soon sign with Pfizer for 100 million doses. When we talk about vaccines, we talk about hope. We have enough vaccine on the horizon and we hope to have vaccinated the entire population by the end of the year," Queiroga emphasised.
The head of the Ministry of Health defended the breaking of pharmaceutical industry patents so that developing countries can produce generic vaccines and underlined Brazil's adherence to the initiative led by the World Trade Organisation to increase the production of immunisations through technology transfer.
In this context, he said that Brazilian scientists are working in partnership with Oxford University and have modernised their laboratory facilities in order to produce and scale up vaccines for their own population and that of countries in the region.
Queiroga indicated that the priority population to receive the vaccine because of their level of vulnerability includes indigenous peoples, adding that 75 per cent of the population over 18 years of age in these communities have already been vaccinated.
On the other hand, the minister pointed out that the pandemic has highlighted the global need to strengthen public health systems and reinforce primary care both for emergencies and for the treatment and control of chronic diseases, which have been the underlying cause of many of the deaths from COVID-19.
Speaking about the situation in Latin American and Caribbean countries, PAHO's director of Emergencies said the outlook is "very worrying".
"Countries are fighting several battles, they don't have enough vaccines and they are operating in the context of a huge economic crisis that has increased poverty," Dr Ciro Ugarte emphasised.
He stressed that while cases and deaths are declining, it is more important than ever to support health workers and maintain a comprehensive and coordinated approach to reduce transmission and prevent a resurgence and further loss of life.
"That means public health measures including surveillance, testing, contact tracing, supportive quarantine and compassionate care. And it also means individual measures including physical distancing, masks, hand hygiene and ventilation," he said.
But most urgently, he said, more COVID-19 vaccines need to be made available, either through the COVAX mechanism or through donations for countries that do not have the resources to buy them directly from manufacturers.
"So far, COVAX has delivered 7.3 million vaccines in the region, but many more are needed. Many countries cannot make bilateral agreements and depend on COVAX, but the prognosis of having more supplies soon is not optimistic," Ugarte insisted.
He recalled that the United States provided US$3.5 billion in emergency funding against COVID-19 for poor or developing countries, but he lamented that not enough of these resources have reached Latin America and the Caribbean.
He added that countries such as Colombia, Guyana, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are facing a dramatic increase in cases and that their health systems are overwhelmed.
To help alleviate this emergency, PAHO and its partners are supporting nations that cannot keep up with the demand for oxygen, intubation drugs and other medical supplies.
Ugarte specified that much of the increase in COVID-19 infections is occurring among young people, who are arriving with severe cases in hospitals and putting health systems in critical condition.