Brazil eyes 70 million Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses from January as death toll surges

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil has signed a letter of intent with Pfizer Inc for the delivery of more than 70 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, its health minister said on Tuesday, the day the country’s death toll from the virus surged to its highest in almost a month.

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The shots will be delivered from January next year, Eduardo Pazuello said, adding that Brazil has lined up more than 300 million doses of vaccines through various agreements, and their use just needs to be approved by the health regulator Anvisa.

President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that Brazil will make any vaccine available free of charge to anyone who wants it, once its effectiveness and approval has been signed off by Anvisa.

The need for a vaccine appears more urgent than ever. Health Ministry figures on Tuesday showed that Brazil registered 51,088 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours and 842 COVID-19 fatalities, the highest death toll since Nov. 14.

Brazil has the third highest number of confirmed cases in the world at 6.67 million, and the second highest death toll of 178,159.

Brazilian state governors met with Pazuello on Tuesday to ensure broad access to COVID-19 vaccines amid concerns the government will fail to secure a diverse supply of potential shots.

After the meeting, Pazuello said in a statement the federal government would acquire any effective vaccine approved by Anvisa, and that the vaccination program was expected to begin at the end of February.

The move comes amid increasing concern about not only access to vaccines in Brazil but the independence of Anvisa, which critics fear may be compromised by Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, a denier of the gravity of COVID-19 and a vaccine skeptic, has stacked Anvisa with like-minded former military officers, raising fears of interference in the regulatory agency that could delay vaccine approvals.

A Supreme Court ruling would clear the way for São Paulo state to start vaccinating people in January, as planned, with doses of China’s CoronaVac vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Bolsonaro has previously said the federal government would not buy the Sinovac vaccine, even though testing in Brazil is well advanced. That has put him at loggerheads with Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a political rival expected to run against Bolsonaro in 2022.

Doria said vaccination would begin in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25, a month before the federal government’s immunization plan.

Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello, Ricardo Brito, Anthony Boadle and Jamie McGeever, writing by Anthony Boadle and Jamie McGeever; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer, Tom Brown and Bill Berkrot