Sinovac vaccine returns one Brazilian city to ‘oasis of normalcy’ while most of the country still suffers

Jun 2, 2021 | 2 comments

By Mauricio Savarese 

Just one Covid-19 patient is in critical condition at the Dr. Geraldo Cesar Reis clinic in Serrana, a city of almost 46,000 in Sao Paulo state’s countryside. The 63-year-old woman rejected the vaccine that was offered to every adult resident of Serrana as part of a trial.

Life is returning to normal in Serrana, in Sao Paulo state, following its mass vaccination program.

Doctors say the woman was awaiting one of Pfizer’s shots, which remain scarce in Brazil. But she is an outlier here. Most adults rolled up their sleeves when offered the vaccine made by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, and the experiment has transformed the community into an oasis of near normalcy in a country where many communities continue to suffer.

Doctors who treated Covid-19 in Serrana have seen their patient loads evaporate. They now help colleagues with other diseases and recently started eating lunch at home. Life has returned to the streets: Neighbors chat and families have weekend barbecues. Outsiders who previously had no reason to set foot in Serrana are arriving for haircuts and restaurant outings.

“We’re now as full as we used to be,” Rogério Silva, a staffer at a store for cheap refreshments and snacks, said in an interview. “Weeks ago, people wouldn’t form a line in here, wouldn’t eat in, and I wouldn’t let them use the bathroom. Now it’s back.”

The success story emerged as other population centers keep struggling with the virus, enduring rising infections and new government-imposed restrictions. Meanwhile, the vaccine appeared headed for wider use. The World Health Organization on Tuesday granted emergency use authorization to the Sinovac shot for people 18 and over, the second such authorization it has granted to a Chinese company.

The Sinovac vaccines has already been administered to hundreds of millions in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In Ecuador, where 10 percent of the population has received at least one dose, about half of all vaccines administered are Sinovac.

The experiment known as “Project S” lasted four months and tested Sinovac’s shot in real-world conditions. The preliminary results made public Monday suggest the pandemic can be controlled if three-quarters of the population is fully vaccinated with Sinovac, said Ricardo Palacios, a director at Sao Paulo state’s Butantan Institute and coordinator of the study, which was not peer-reviewed.

“The most important result was understanding that we can control the pandemic even without vaccinating the entire population,” Palacios said.

The results offer hope to hundreds of millions of people, especially in developing nations. Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and others are likewise reliant on the Chinese shot, which is cheaper than vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

The city’s population was split into four geographic areas regardless of age and gender, and most adults received two shots by the end of April. Results released Monday showed that the pandemic was controlled after three of the areas had been vaccinated. It was not clear if vaccine uptake was the same in each area.

Serrana saw vast improvements: Deaths fell by 95%, hospitalizations by 86% and symptomatic cases by 80%.

The project “shows the protection exists and that the vaccine is effective. No doubt,” Gonzalo Vecina, one of the founders of Brazil’s health regulator and a medical school professor, told The Associated Press.

Likewise, Denise Garrett, vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which advocates for expanding global vaccine access, called the results “good and very encouraging.”

Both Vecina and Garrett said unanswered questions remain and that more data is needed to properly analyze the results, including information about people who got shots but did not develop immunity.

The spread of the virus in Serrana slowed while neighboring communities like Ribeirao Preto, just 12 miles west, saw COVID-19 surge. The upswing was largely blamed on more contagious variants.

Hospitals in Ribeirao Preto are so full of COVID-19 patients that the mayor imposed strict shutdown measures last week, including halting public transportation and limiting hours for the city’s 700,000 residents to buy groceries. Some will wait months for their vaccines. Almost all shops are closed, and 95% of intensive-care unit beds are occupied by virus patients.

Credit: Associated Press