In Covid-19 Vaccination Push, Latin American Nations Are Catching Up to the U.S.
As vaccinations in the U.S. have slowed significantly from their peak, they have risen sharply in Latin America, with a host of countries now inoculating against Covid-19 at a far higher rate than their richer neighbor to the north.
The progress in Latin America is built on two factors that have gotten little attention: In many countries, people are eager to get vaccinated and largely trust vaccines, more so than in many richer countries, including the U.S.
At the same time, vaccine supply problems are being slowly overcome. Far greater numbers of vaccines are now arriving from the U.S., U.K., Russia and China, allowing local health officials to pick up the pace.
“Latin America has always been a champion for vaccination and people trust vaccines,” said Patricia García, a former Peruvian health minister and epidemiologist. “If we are able to get enough supply of the vaccines, we can catch up.”
Roughly two-thirds of people in Chile and Uruguay are fully vaccinated, compared with about half in the U.S. Most of the rest of Latin America is still behind the U.S. in the share of people with one or both vaccine doses, but a number of countries are closing the gap fast.
In recent weeks, Brazil, which has 30% fewer people than the U.S., has been applying nearly 1.5 million doses a day, double the 750,000 or so daily doses in the U.S., according to Our World in Data. On a per-capita basis, the U.S. is currently vaccinating at half the rate of Mexico, and a third the rate of Peru, Colombia and Argentina. In the past week, Panama vaccinated its people at six times the rate of the U.S.
While a slowdown in vaccination rates might be expected as a country inoculates more of its citizens, the U.S. still has tens of millions of people who are eligible but unvaccinated, according to the data.
A faster pace of vaccination comes not a moment too soon for a region that has been the hardest hit during the pandemic by some measures. With 8% of the globe’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global deaths from the pandemic, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
South America’s average vaccination rate per capita far outpaces regions like Africa, and is ahead of many more developed nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, according to Our World in Data.
Deaths and new cases have declined substantially in South America during the past two months, after a surge earlier this year. But now, the Delta variant is making inroads across the region, threatening a new surge in coming weeks. Mexico has already seen cases and deaths spike due to Delta.
“Vaccinations are going up, but the problem is Delta,” said Irene Bosch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist who works on health policy in Latin America. “It’s a race (to vaccinate)…The region is still very vulnerable.”
While the U.S. sprinted ahead of many countries in rolling out mass Covid-19 vaccination, hitting a peak of 3.4 million doses a day in mid-April, the rate has slowed significantly. A June Gallup survey showed 20% of Americans say they are unlikely to get the vaccine at the moment. That has prompted local officials to tempt more people to get jabs by offering everything from free beer to amusement park tickets.
By contrast, people in most Latin American countries are more accepting of vaccines, according to polls. While 67% in the U.S. said they would vaccinate, in Brazil the rate is 88%, among the highest in the world, according to polling done for the World Economic Forum last year by the pollster Ipsos. Peru, Argentina, Mexico and Chile all topped the U.S. in respondents answering affirmatively when asked if they would vaccinate, according to Ipsos.
When Brazilian health authorities offered to vaccinate the entire town of Serrana in Brazil as part of an experiment to test the efficacy of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, 96% of eligible adults ended up getting inoculated.
People in Latin America are more accepting of vaccines partly because they fear becoming sick and not receiving proper care at underfunded public hospitals, experts say. In Mexico, between 35% and 50% of Covid-19 patients die at public hospitals, and eight in every 10 who get put on a ventilator, according to government statistics.
“The pro-vaccine sentiment would be stronger in Latin America due to the lack of healthcare services,” said Dr. Bosch. “The only hope is to get protection.”
Some countries in the region, like Brazil, also have a successful record of mass inoculation campaigns to combat diseases like yellow fever. Research centers such as the Butantan Institute in São Paulo have established themselves as major vaccine producers for the region.
Across the region, people have gone to great lengths to get a vaccine. Hundreds of thousands of people from Mexico to Argentina flew to Miami, Houston and New York to get vaccinated before shots were available in Latin America, often spending thousands of dollars per trip.
From Mexico to Uruguay, lines for vaccinations are long. In Peru’s capital of Lima, lines snake around parks, the city zoo, stadiums and a beach parking lot where the government is holding so-called vaccine-a-thons by keeping vaccination sites open day and night from Friday morning to late Sunday.
Elia Cruz, a 38-year-old who works in a Lima food market, put on a sweater and heavy jacket for the chilly weather and stood in line for more than five hours for her first shot, receiving it shortly after midnight on Saturday.
“The cold was horrible, but with this virus that has killed so many people, I feel better now,” said Ms. Cruz, who received China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
While Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been one of the fiercest critics of vaccination in the region, Brazilians have largely ignored him, including several members of his inner cabinet who said they also got immunized at the first opportunity.
Several countries have relied more heavily on Chinese vaccines that are less effective than Western-made shots, prompting officials to start thinking about a third dose of vaccinations to confront variants like Delta.
Chile, one of the region’s wealthiest nations, has had a successful vaccination campaign. But it was still battered by a surge in cases earlier this year as it relied on the Chinese Sinovac vaccine. With more than 80% of Chilean adults fully immunized, public-health experts are still concerned the country is vulnerable to the Delta variant, which prompted the government on Wednesday to begin offering a third booster shot of a Western vaccine for people who received Sinovac.
Claudia Cortés, an infectious disease expert at the University of Chile said Delta will cause a spike in new cases. “We know we are going to have a third or fourth wave, but we are hoping it is going to be smaller.”