Brazil is in talks to buy an additional 20 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech, the governor of Sao Paulo told Reuters in a Thursday interview, in a show of confidence in the Chinese shot.
The order, which has not been previously reported, will come on top of the 100 million doses of the vaccine, known as CoronaVac, already secured by Sao Paulo's Butantan biomedical institute, Governor Joao Doria said.
The state-run institute led mass clinical testing of the vaccine in Brazil and is now filling and finishing doses for a national immunization program, with plans for 100% domestic production in early 2022. The only other Covid-19 shot approved for emergency use in Brazil is the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Doria, governor of the country's wealthiest and most populous state, has been the driving force behind CoronaVac's testing and rollout in Brazil, bolstering his presidential ambitions and feeding a rivalry with President Jair Bolsonaro.
But with efficacy of just over 50% in the Brazilian trial, well below other choices on the market, some have questioned whether Brazil should pursue other vaccines as it confronts the deadliest outbreak outside the United States.
Bolsonaro, a China critic and Covid-19 skeptic, initially dismissed the Sinovac vaccine but has changed tack in the absence of alternatives, after his Health Ministry dallied in securing contracts with vaccine developers.
The pandemic has killed nearly 230,000 people in Brazil, and a new variant that emerged in the city of Manaus has proven devastating in a second wave now hammering the jungle city.
While the federally funded Fiocruz biomedical center is still awaiting supplies to begin bottling doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the Butantan institute has begun finishing and selling doses of CoronaVac to the Health Ministry.
Doria said he expects Butantan to receive shipments of active ingredients from China on a rolling weekly or 10-day basis, overcoming initial hitches that threatened to slow production.
A new Butantan facility under construction is slated to produce the vaccine's active ingredients beginning in January 2022, later than a prior target of the second half of this year. Butantan is negotiating supplies for the extra 20 million doses to keep its finishing line active until the new plant starts up.
So far, Brazil's Health Ministry has only signed a contract with Butantan to acquire 46 million doses of CoronaVac for nationwide distribution, but Doria said he was confident it would sign for another 54 million doses soon.
"We won't, in the face of a life and death situation, just wait to see what happens," he said.
Doria has previously said that additional vaccines not purchased by the Health Ministry could be sold separately to Brazilian states.
He said the federal government had not yet paid for the CoronaVac doses already delivered to the Health Ministry, and payment is due by the end of the month.
"If it doesn't (pay), it won't receive any more doses of the vaccine from Butantan," he said.