Brazil passes 300,000 COVID-19 deaths, as minister pledges 1 million shots per day

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -As the number of COVID-19 deaths in Brazil passed 300,000 on Wednesday, President Jair Bolsonaro’s fourth health minister used his first official day in the job to pledge a vaccination goal of 1 million shots a day to put the brakes on the snowballing crisis.

An aerial view shows gravediggers wearing protective suits carrying a coffin during burial of a person who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Vila Formosa cemetery, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 23, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Latin America’s biggest country, already home to the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll after the United States, has become the global epicenter of COVID-19 deaths, with one in four global fatalities currently a Brazilian.

The outbreak is reaching its worst ever stage in the country, fanned by a patchy vaccine rollout, an infectious new variant and a lack of nationwide public health restrictions.

The scale of the outbreak is placing fresh pressure on Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who has won international notoriety for his efforts to block lockdown measures, sow doubts over vaccines and push unproven cures like hydroxychloroquine.

In his first news conference as health minister on Wednesday, a day after Brazil recorded a record death toll of 3,251 fatalities, Marcelo Queiroga said the government aims to speed up the inoculation drive and pledged to deliver 1 million shots a day.

He added that vaccinations, masks and social distancing are all key to slowing the virus, and that nobody wants lockdowns, especially as Brazilians are unlikely to adhere to them. Queiroga said he would focus on science and transparency.

As the pandemic has worsened in recent weeks, Bolsonaro has showed signs of taking it more seriously. The return of his political nemesis, former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also appears to have stirred him into action. Lula’s corruption convictions have recently been annulled, allowing him to run in next year’s election.

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On Tuesday, Bolsonaro gave a televised address in which he defended his handling of the pandemic, and pledged to deliver more vaccines. But his comments were jeered by pot-banging protests across the continent-sized country.

On Wednesday, he said the government would seek more coordination with state governors, with weekly meetings to discuss coronavirus-fighting measures in a newly launched committee.

But the pandemic outlook remains bleak.

“The outlook for the coming weeks will be very difficult,” former Health Minister Nelson Teich, who left the ministry after clashing with the president, told Reuters. “Our vaccination program is slow.”

Meanwhile, the federal health ministry is facing accusations of trying to manipulate death data.

São Paulo state Health Secretary Jean Gorinchteyn on Wednesday accused the ministry of “bureaucratizing” the process of registering COVID-19 deaths by requiring identity documents that served to undercount the dead. He said the requirement was not communicated to states and municipalities in advance.

Last year, the health ministry came under fire for stopping the publication of COVID-19 data on its website, before the decision was ordered overturned by the supreme court.

The health ministry said in a statement later on Wednesday that it had suspended the more rigorous documentary requirements.

Teich, the former health minister, said he thought the situation in Brazil could still “get much worse.”

“The disease is now dictating its own evolution, because we are not able to control it,” he said.

Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, in Brasilia, writing by Gabriel StargardterEditing by Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall