SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) After being among the world hit hardest by COVID-19, Chile is now close to the top among countries in vaccinating its population against the virus.
With more than 25% of its people hit by at least one blow, the 19 million country on the South American Pacific coast is Latin American champion, and globally lags behind Israel, the UAE and the UK .
This is far from the beginning of the pandemic, when Chile was criticized for its inability to find and isolate infected people.
What is the secret of his success?
Government officials and health experts say it was the country’s early negotiations with vaccine manufacturers, as well as its past experience with robust vaccination programs, a record valued by the World Health Organization.
During the first months of the pandemic, headlines in Chile were bleak, with the country’s intensive care units almost full and the government unable to control the spread of the virus despite restrictions involving mandatory blockages.
But another story was unfolding in parallel that few people knew about, one that had started months ago and would later guarantee Chile quick access to vaccines.
Andrs Couve, Chile’s science minister, told the Associated Press that formal negotiations with vaccine companies began last April, just one month after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
By May, Couve said, a team of experts and officials presented a plan to President Sebastian Piera, including a roadmap on how to use the country’s network of trade deals and his previous contacts with pharmaceutical companies to get vaccines after to have been developed. Recommendations included being part of clinical trials.
This effort was aided by contacts made months ago in China. In October 2019, Chilean biochemist Dr. Alexis Kalergis had traveled to Beijing with two Chilean colleagues for an international congress on immunology. There Kalergis met with experts from Chinese pharmaceuticals Sinovac Biotech Ltd.
Kalergis had already approached Sinovac about work on vaccine research. So when China announced in January 2020 that it had identified a new virus and within weeks the world saw it spreading across the globe, Kalergis knew he had to talk to his colleagues in Sinovac.
Taking advantage of our experience, contacts and interest we expressed, we started conversations with Sinovac, said Kalergis, director of the Millennium Institute for Immunology and Immunotherapy at the Catholic University of Chile.
He spoke to Sinovac colleagues in January and February 2020, then went to Catholic University dean Ignacio Snchez for details, saying they should be passed to the government.
Snchez addressed the Chilean health minister and foreign secretary, demanding early negotiations with Sinovac and other pharmacists and that Chile be part of their clinical trials. The ministers agreed and the Chilean government began to make diplomatic contacts.
By June, long before any other country in Latin America, Chile had secured a contract with Sinovac, which agreed to give an early group once the vaccine was authorized, Kalergis said.
Rodrigo Yez, undersecretary for international economic relations and chief negotiator with companies to get the vaccines, said Chile understood from the beginning that it had to work with different pharmaceutical companies at the same time.
We looked at different alternatives and did not put all the eggs in the same basket, he said.
Chile was part of a Sinovac clinical trial that began in December and involved 2,300 medical staff. The government has not published its results, saying only that they were good.
Trials of vaccines from AstraZeneca, Janssen and Chinese pharmaceuticals CanSino were also conducted in Chile, and those results have also not been made public.
Chile received the first doses of the vaccine in December, about 21,000 from Pfizer, but they were less than promised. The country immediately began vaccinating medical workers. In late January, Chile received the first 4 million doses from Sinovac and was able to speed up inoculation. Mass vaccination began in February.
Chile has been administering more than 100,000 shots almost every day since early February, and that more than tripled this week.
On Wednesday, he set a global daily record of 1.3 shots per 100 inhabitants, followed by Israel with 1.04 doses, according to Our World in Data, a collaboration between researchers at Oxford University and the nonprofit Global Change Data Lab.
No other country in Latin America has had anything close to Chile’s success. Brazil, for example, has vaccinated only 4% of its population, and Argentina about 3%.
Health Minister Enrique Pars said Chile has now secured 35 million doses to vaccinate 15 million people and is already helping other countries. Earlier this month, Chilean authorities donated 20,000 doses of Sinovac to Paraguay and the same amount to Ecuador.
Chile had good planning and wisely used the resources it has to make bilateral deals with several manufacturers, Jarbas Barbosa, deputy director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said this week.
This is not the first time Chile has developed a successful vaccination program. Last year, between March and April when the virus was spreading, Chilean authorities vaccinated 8 million people against the flu.
Mario Patio, 75, was among the first to be vaccinated with a Sinovac dose in February at a school in Lo Prado, a slum in Santiago.
Everything was perfect, fast, with excellent service, well organized, “said Patio, who was making his second stroke on Saturday. For me, the vaccine means being calmer.”