Brazil Is Running Out of Ingredients for Astra, Sinovac Shots

Ingredients used to produce AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 shot in Brazil could run out by the end of the week, exacerbating an already precarious mass vaccine campaign that has struggled to ramp up local production.

The Rio de Janeiro-based research institute Fiocruz, which partnered with Astra to produce the shot locally, has enough of the so called IFA -- the active ingredient to make the vaccines -- to sustain output until early next week. It may have to halt production if the next batch doesn’t arrive by Saturday, Fiocruz’s Bio-Manguinhos Director Mauricio Zuma said in an interview.

“We are waiting for AstraZeneca’s confirmation to know if it will arrive this week or next,” said Zuma, who leads the so-called Bio-Manguinhos unit of Fiocruz, which is responsible for research and vaccine production. “If it arrives next week, we may have to stop production for a few days.”

Brazil Is Running Out of Ingredients for Astra, Sinovac Shots

At the same time, Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute, which partnered with Sinovac Biotech Ltd to produce a different Covid-19 shot known as CoronaVac, is also running out of raw material with thousands of liters of ingredients held up in China awaiting government approval for export. Butantan, which makes most of the vaccines used in Brazil, has enough IFA to last until Friday -- after that, it will halt production, state Governor Joao Doria said on Wednesday.

The delays in production at Fiocruz are expected to have an impact in deliveries for June, as batches being made now still have to undergo quality control and a validation process before being handed over to the public health care system.

Brazil’s mass vaccination campaign has been plagued by delays and shortages from the start. States and cities have had to halt immunizations several times as shots ran out, and the health ministry has slashed the estimated number of doses available. The country has deployed some 54 million shots so far, ranking fifth globally in absolute terms. But with 212 million people, that been enough to cover just 17% of the population with a first dose, while 8.7% are now fully vaccinated.

Even as daily death figures have fallen from a peak of around 4,000 during the height of the second wave last month, Brazil has now reported 425,000 fatalities from the virus, second only to the U.S. globally.

While Pfizer Inc.’s shots have now begun to be deployed in the country, jabs from Astra and Sinovac are by far the most used.

Fiocruz’s Zuma says bureaucracy is the main reason for the shortage of supplies even as others cite a strained political relationship with China.

“There are political issues, but we don’t get much involved in that. When the delays in the delivery involving Chinese authorities began, we called in Brazilian diplomats,” he said. “Our focus is to produce.”

Fiocruz has been delivering between 4 to 6 million shots a week to Brazil’s public health care system, well below the 1.4 million doses a day it had forecast earlier this year. Zuma said input delays and fine tuning of the production process have contributed to the lower supply.

Brazil’s plan to depend exclusively on local production for its vaccines at this stage have been delayed.

Fiocruz was expected to start making the IFA locally in April, but it has yet to sign the technology transfer agreement that will allow it to do so. Now, Zuma said the local production will begin in a test mode this week, with delivery expected only in October.

“We’re making a great effort to sign the contract. If not this week, the next and it cannot go beyond that, because otherwise it will start to interfere in the schedule that we outlined,” Zuma said.

Delays can be explained through both commercial and financial complexities as well as technological and legal issues, he said.

To close the gap between production with Chinese and domestic supplies, Fiocruz is discussing three alternatives, Zuma said. The first is acquiring 8 million ready-made doses from India, which were expected to arrive in March but fell through as the virus ravaged the Asian country. The second is the delivery of Covax facility shots. And the third is to get raw materials for another 50 million doses from AstraZeneca, but initial talks signaled those would only arrive by the end of the year.

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