With vaccines on the way, Mexico sees 'beginning of the end' of pandemic

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mexico City
Anthony Esposito and Adriana Barrera

By Anthony Esposito and Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico can see an end to the coronavirus pandemic on the horizon with the first doses of Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine scheduled to arrive in weeks, said a top official in charge of the country's international response to the health crisis.

Martha Delgado, a deputy foreign minister tasked with helping to secure vaccine supplies for Mexico, said Pfizer had agreed to deliver doses to the different points of vaccination across the country rather than to a central distribution center.

That will significantly reduce a potential logistical nightmare for Mexico, which does not have the super-cold storage facilities needed to distribute the shots.

Pfizer's vaccine is based on a novel technology that uses synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) to activate the immune system against the virus and needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

"The super-freezing cold chain this particular vaccine requires would be handled by the company until the point of delivery," Delgado told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday.

Mexico has inked an agreement with Pfizer to acquire 34.4 million doses of its two-shot vaccine, and the first 250,000 shots are expected to arrive this month, with deliveries possibly continuing until December of 2021. The government has said it will prioritize vaccinating health workers.

The prospect of vaccine delivery is the "beginning of the end" of the pandemic, said Delgado.

Pfizer submitted details about its vaccine to Mexico's health regulator, Cofepris, last month and is awaiting approval.

The agreement is for 250,000 doses to be shipped in December once the vaccine is approved. After those shots reach their destination, the delivery of the second doses is triggered three weeks later, Delgado said.

The government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has also signed a pre-purchase agreement for the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc and Oxford University. Mexico expects enough doses to be delivered between March and August to inoculate 38.7 million people.

But a hiccup in that vaccine's late-stage clinical trial in which some volunteers received a half dose followed by a full dose, instead of two full doses, could delay delivery, said Delgado.

The half-dose first pattern was found to be 90% effective in preventing illness, versus a 62% success rate with the two full dose regimen, according to interim data.

"Once we have the results of the study confirming (the new data), I think they'll also tell us if we have a week, two, or I don't know how many of delay in delivery," Delgado said.

Mexico also has a pre-purchase agreement to supply doses for 35 million people with a vaccine from China's CanSino Biologics Inc, which is conducting large-scale trials at 19 test centers in the country.

Delgado said CanSino's trial in Mexico has enrolled some 15,000 participants out of a 40,000-volunteer global program, and delivery could happen from early next year through Sept. 2021.

Mexico had said first deliveries could happen in December.

"Over a third of CanSino's global clinical trial is happening here in Mexico. So this is very relevant; it also demonstrates technical confidence," said Delgado, adding that the Chinese firm has invested over $280 million in Mexico.

Additionally, Mexico has secured enough vaccines to cover 20% of its population through the global COVAX facility mechanism, led by the GAVI vaccines alliance and the World Health Organization to promote equitable access.

Mexico has a population of over 120 million and the virus has killed more than 108,000 people. Infections are around peak levels, so hopes are riding high on the vaccines.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," Delgado said.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Adriana Barrera; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bill Berkrot)