Chile emerges as global leader in Covid inoculations with ‘pragmatic strategy’

Chile has administered more than 3.1m vaccine doses in just three weeks to emerge as a global leader in Covid-19 inoculations, trailing only the US, UK, UAE and Israel in vaccination doses per 100 people.

Having initially endured heavy criticism over its handling of pandemic restrictions, Chile has moved quickly to secure vaccines from a range of suppliers and aims to have 80% of its population immunised against the virus by June. It has already vaccinated 16% of its 19 million citizens at hospitals, schools, stadia and municipal buildings throughout the country.

“Chile can be proud of its inoculation process,” said the health minister, Enrique Paris, who assumed the role in June 2020 after his predecessor resigned amid a surging caseload. “To get to this point, we began work in May last year to guarantee that a sufficient quantity of safe and effective vaccines would be available to all Chileans.”

The successful vaccine campaign stands in stark contrast with neighbouring countries. Chile’s vaccination rate of 16.78 doses per 100 people far outstrips the regional average of 2.83. Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, has dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, has so far managed to vaccinate 3.67% of its population – but surpassed another grim milestone this week with 250,000 Covid-19 deaths recorded. Across the Andes, Argentina has administered 1.84 doses per 100 people. No other South American country has managed to vaccinate more than 1% of its population.

Chile’s mass inoculation campaign began with those aged 90 and over on 3 February, and after administering more than 1m vaccinations in its first week has now covered 1.9 million people over the age of 65. A pathway has been laid out for the country to achieve herd immunity by June.

In the current phase, over-65s, transplant recipients and those requiring dialysis are being vaccinated, while the latest shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech and SinoVac will also allow for 250,000 teachers to be given a first dose ahead of a return to school on 1 March. People aged between 60 and 64 will be targeted next, and from 8 March, anyone suffering from a chronic illness will be eligible to receive a vaccine.

More than 20,000 people have died having contracted the virus in Chile, where 812,344 have tested positive for Covid-19 – with 39% of these infections concentrated in the capital, Santiago.

While lockdowns have eased and tightened again over the summer months through a set of tiered restrictions, 30 of Chile’s 346 districts are currently in lockdown, with two more joining them from 27 February. A nationwide curfew remains in place, limiting movement between 11pm and 5am.

“We have followed a pragmatic strategy,” said Rodrigo Yáñez, the undersecretary in Chile’s trade ministry, who has been tasked with securing vaccine supply.

“We considered the technical and scientific merit of each vaccine rather than political factors and have reached agreements with a number of laboratories in case supply should slow down.”

A state budget of $200m was set aside for the vaccination programme, although the overall cost could rise to nearer $300m, according to Yáñez.

Chile has bought more than 35m vaccine doses, including 7.8m through the global Covax scheme, 10m each from the SinoVac Biotech and Pfizer laboratories, and further supplies from AstraZeneca – the only three manufacturers whose vaccines the country has approved to date.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to arrive on 24 December, with 20,000 doses used to vaccinate healthcare workers in direct contact with the virus, and other vaccines produced by the Johnson & Johnson and CanSino laboratories – both of which are single-dose – are currently being trialled in the country. Chile is also considering buying further supplies from the Sputnik V and CureVac laboratories.

With vaccine doses delivered 28 days apart, the mass campaign to administer second doses will begin on 3 March – a year to the day since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Chile.

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