Brazil, pressured over slow COVID-19 vaccines, urges companies to hasten applications

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a medical syringe and a small bottle labeled "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine
Ricardo Brito and Pedro Fonseca

By Ricardo Brito and Pedro Fonseca

BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -With pressure mounting on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to begin vaccinating the population, the government on Tuesday urged producers of COVID-19 vaccines to speed up their applications for use in the country.

A senior Health Ministry official vowed to improve dialogue with Pfizer after it complained of an onerous emergency use application and reiterated that vaccinations could start as soon as Jan. 20.

Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, has said he will not take any coronavirus vaccine whatsoever.

The vaccines are seen as crucial to ending the pandemic in Brazil, home to the world's second-deadliest outbreak after the United States. Yet basic details about the government's vaccine plans remain sketchy, with regulators yet to approve the AstraZeneca shot Brazil has already bought, and China's Sinovac vaccine struggling to produce late-stage data.

The federal government waded into an awkward scrap with Pfizer, whose vaccine is already being used in Britain and the United States, over what the U.S. firm described as a surprisingly onerous procedure to apply for an emergency use authorization.

In a news conference, Deputy Health Minister Elcio Franco defended the government, saying it was hamstrung by local laws which only allow it to sign vaccine purchase agreements once producers have emergency use authorizations or full authorizations.

He vowed to seek a better dialogue with Pfizer, but said he could not force the company to apply for an emergency use authorizations or a full regulatory application.

Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He urged vaccine makers to apply for emergency use authorizations as soon as possible, adding that in a best case scenario, immunizations in Brazil could begin on Jan. 20.

The scandal over Brazil's slow vaccine rollout comes as the coronavirus roars back to life in Brazil. The country recorded 58,718 additional confirmed coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, along with 1,111 deaths, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday. It was the worst daily death toll reported by the ministry since September.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito in Brasilia and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Leslie Adler)