Latin America has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with reported cases and deaths soaring in recent months, especially in Brazil. But vaccination efforts have come up against multiple roadblocks, including a lack of domestic production, controversy over vaccines from China and Russia, and faltering negotiations with U.S. and European manufacturers. While some experts worry about the rise of vaccine diplomacy by Beijing and Moscow, others warn that lagging vaccination rates will lead to the spread of more dangerous variants.
What’s the state of the pandemic in Latin America?
The region has had among the world’s largest outbreaks. By May 2021, the official death toll for Latin American countries combined was nearing one million people—and some experts believe the actual number of deaths is much higher. With 8 percent of the global population, Latin America now accounts for 35 percent of all COVID-19 deaths globally.
Brazil, in particular, has been devastated; it has reported more than fourteen million cases and over four hundred thousand deaths since the pandemic began. The country is thought to be the origin of the worrying P.1 variant, which appears to be more contagious and is spreading rapidly throughout the region.
How are vaccination efforts going across the region?
Vaccination rates vary widely, depending on factors such as population density, vaccine availability, and health-care infrastructure. Chile, for instance, has distributed some seventeen million doses, and some 40 percent of its population has been fully vaccinated. But in other countries, including Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, the share of the population that has gotten at least one dose is in the range of 9 to 18 percent. In Brazil, despite a history of successful vaccination campaigns, just 17 percent of people have received at least one dose.
Overall, the region has administered more than 120 million doses, compared with more than 275 million by the United States and about 300 million by European countries. And which vaccines are being distributed varies across the region: more than a dozen are using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine; ten are using Pfizer-BioNTech’s; twelve are using at least one vaccine developed by China-based firms CanSino, Sinopharm, and Sinovac; and seven countries are using Russia’s Sputnik vaccine.
Many of these are being distributed through the global COVAX initiative, which aims to deliver twenty-two million doses to the region by the end of the month. Seven vaccine makers are involved in COVAX, including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer. Almost all Latin American countries have joined the initiative.
What are the challenges?
The region’s reliance on outside vaccines—especially from China and Russia—has raised concerns. Few vaccines are being made within Latin America, with the exception of Cuba, which has been developing two vaccines it plans to manufacture domestically despite restricted access to medical equipment due to the U.S. embargo.
One question centers on vaccine efficacy and safety: several of the Chinese-developed vaccines appear to have lower efficacy rates, which some experts worry may have contributed to a surge in Chile’s cases despite a high vaccination rate. Meanwhile, debate continues over broader Chinese involvement in the region: Peru is investigating allegations of bribery by China’s state pharmaceutical company, and Brazilian politics has fractured along pro- and anti-China lines. The New York Times reported that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reversed his opposition to Chinese telecommunications infrastructure in part to more rapidly access vaccines.
Some health experts have raised similar concerns about the Sputnik vaccine. Shipments have been delayed, leading Mexico to strike a deal to bottle the doses itself. Brazil’s Bolsonaro floated the idea of domestically producing the Russian vaccine, but soon after Brazilian health authorities barred use of Sputnik due to safety and efficacy concerns.
Many Latin American countries are trying to acquire U.S. or European vaccines. Brazil and Mexico have contracted for hundreds of millions of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, but they have been slow to arrive. Other governments in the region, most notably Argentina, accused Pfizer of bullying in negotiations to get doses of its vaccine.
On top of all this is the daunting challenge of reaching communities. Even in countries where vaccines are available, many areas with poor public health infrastructure are struggling to get the shots in arms. Meanwhile, public health experts are warning about the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. If vaccination doesn’t move fast enough, they say, variants that originate in Brazil or elsewhere could quickly undermine global efforts.
What comes next?
At a recent summit with European counterparts, Latin American countries pressed for equitable vaccine distribution. In response, Spain announced it will donate 7.5 million doses of its vaccine supply to the region by the end of this year.
Still, much depends on U.S. policy. In March 2021, President Joe Biden promised 2.5 million doses to Mexico, and later upped the donation to 7.5 million doses; he also committed at least $4 billion to COVAX. In recent weeks, the administration has pledged an additional sixty million doses for global distribution and signaled its support for waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, which could allow some Latin American countries to eventually manufacture their own supplies. (Critics say manufacturing capacity cannot be built up quickly.)
Some experts argue that with U.S. vaccine supplies on track to overtake demand by next month, Latin America should receive priority consideration for any excess doses; vaccine contracts present yet another obstacle, though, as they often seek to restrict foreign donations by the purchasing country.