Ecuador to allow municipalities to directly import COVID-19 vaccines

QUITO, March 5 (Reuters) - Ecuador’s health ministry said on Friday it would allow municipalities to directly purchase vaccines against the novel coronavirus, provided they comply with requirements laid out in the central government’s vaccination plan.

The approval comes after the country’s largest cities of Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca requested that President Lenin Moreno allow them to import vaccines due to the slow progress of the government’s plan.

The government says it has administered the first dose of Pfizer Inc’s vaccine to some 53,000 people, namely healthcare workers in hospitals dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients, and the elderly living in nursing homes.

Cynthia Viteri, the mayor of Guayaquil, told reporters this week that the local government of the Andean country’s largest city had devoted a budget of some $15 million to a plan to buy doses of the AstraZeneca Plc, Sputnik V and Sinovac vaccines.

On Friday, the health ministry said municipalities seeking to import vaccines themselves must negotiate the purchases directly and “without intermediaries,” and said they should be distributed for free to residents of their respective jurisdictions.

Moreno’s government says it has negotiated some 20 million doses of vaccines with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative and Sinovac in an attempt to inoculate 60% of the country’s population over the age of 18 for free.

The South American country has reported 291,070 coronavirus cases and 15,997 deaths. (Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito Writing by Luc Cohen Editing by Matthew Lewis)