A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19 to a man at Medalla Milagrosa Church in Valparaiso, Chile, on April 6, 2021.
JAVIER TORRES | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON – Chile’s vaccination campaign against the coronavirus has been one of the fastest and most extensive in the world, but a recent surge in infections has raised concern beyond its borders.
Almost 40% of the total population of the South American country have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to statistics from Our World in Data, reflecting one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Only Israel and the UK have vaccinated a greater proportion of their population with at least one dose.
Nonetheless, Chile has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, despite the world-famous vaccine rollout and strict bans affecting a large part of its 19 million residents.
The regional director of the Pan American Health Organization has since emphasized that for most countries in the region, vaccines are insufficient to prevent rising infection rates.
The number of daily cases in Chile rose to a record high on April 9, rising to over 9,000 for the first time since the pandemic began and well above the high of nearly 7,000 last summer.
Health Minister Enrique Paris told reporters on Thursday that he hoped the increase in daily cases has now peaked.
“Once we hit that peak, we don’t expect a decrease, but rather a stabilization and then a return to a smaller number of positive patients,” he said, according to Reuters.
What went wrong?
Health experts say the country’s recent surge in cases is partly due to more virulent strains of the virus, easing public health measures, increased mobility, and defiance of simple precautions like physical distancing and wearing a mask.
The center-right government of Chile, led by President Sebastian Pinera, ordered the country’s borders to be closed from March to November 2020, albeit with a few exceptions, before it was decided at the end of last year to reopen them to international passengers.
Shops, restaurants and some resorts have also opened to help boost the country’s pandemic-hit economy.
Passengers in protective suits against the spread of the novel coronavirus disease are queuing at the counters of Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport in Santiago on April 1, 2021, after Chile announced that it would close its borders in April as COVID-19 rose sharply is cases.
MARTIN BERNETTI | AFP | Getty Images
While the country’s vaccination rollout was ahead of most, the spread of a more virulent strain of the virus – like the P.1 variant first spotted in travelers from Brazil – has resulted in a significant spike in cases.
Given the widespread use of CoronaVac, the coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Chinese company Sinovac, questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness have also been raised.
After the head of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated earlier this month that China may need to replace its Covid vaccines or change the way they are administered to make them sufficiently effective.
“We will solve the problem that current vaccines do not have very high protection rates,” said George Gao, director general of China’s CDC, at a conference on April 11th. He has since told the state media that his comments have been misunderstood.
Late-stage data from China’s Covid vaccines remain unpublished, and the data available from the CoronaVac vaccine varies. Brazilian studies found the vaccine to be just over 50% effective and significantly less effective than Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca, while Turkish researchers reported 83.5% effectiveness.
An ambulance leaves Carlos Van Buren Hospital in Valparaiso, Chile on April 6, 2021, overwhelmed by the large number of Covid-19 positive cases.
JAVIER TORRES | AFP | Getty Images
A study published earlier this month by the University of Chile reported that CoronaVac was 56.5% effective in the country two weeks after giving the second doses. It was also crucial, however, that a dose was only 3% effective.
“This would explain why Chile – with one of the most robust vaccine launches in the world, but 93% of the doses sourced from China – has seen a significant spike in cases and a much slower decline in hospital admissions and deaths compared to the early rollouts in.” Israel, UK and US, “said Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group’s Risk Advisory Group, in a research note.
“Chile and the United Arab Emirates are both considering introducing a third dose (a second booster) of the Chinese vaccine accordingly. A change in communication will make the vaccine more hesitant for Chinese vaccines in general,” said Bremmer.
“I cannot stress this enough – for most countries, vaccines are not going to stop this wave of the pandemic,” PAHO director Carissa Etienne said during a weekly press conference Wednesday. “There just isn’t enough of it to protect everyone in the most at-risk countries.”
Etienne urged policymakers in the region to implement “comprehensive strategies” to accelerate vaccine adoption and stop transmission through best public health measures.
On April 14, America reported more than 1.3 million Covid infections and nearly 36,000 deaths in the past week, according to the United Nations Health Department.
To date, America has recorded 58.8 million cases and more than 1.4 million deaths, making it the worst-hit region in the world.
“We are not acting like a region in the middle of a worsening outbreak,” said Etienne of PAHO, describing South America as the “epicenter” of the virus.
In addition to easing restrictions in some areas, Etienne said that new and highly communicable variants of the virus had accelerated cases sharply. Currently, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and some areas of Bolivia are seeing a sharp increase in infections.
Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are also seeing sustained increases in Covid cases, Etienne said.