To great fanfare from government officials, an Aerolíneas Argentinas plane departed Buenos Aires for a round-trip to Russia on Tuesday, embarking a special mission to pick up around 300,000 doses of Moscow’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine.
The news came as officials confirmed more than 8,000 new cases of Covid-19 in Argentina. The country has recorded more than 1.55 million cases since last March, with more than 42,000 fatalities.
Government officials including Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero celebrated the aircraft's departure at 19.56 local time, hailing the state carrier’s crew and their efforts to deliver the vaccine to Argentina. Those involved in the mission wore specially made 'Operation Moscow December 2020' face masks.
"Historic take-off to Russia," Aerolíneas Argentinas said in a post on social media.
The return flight is scheduled "for December 24," confirmed the firm's president, Pablo Ceriani, at a press conference at Ezeiza international airport.
The mission was undertaken by "an Airbus 330, with a crew of 20, including 10 pilots," who will fly in rotation, Ceriani said.
The mission to Moscow involves significant logistical challenges. The vaccine doses will be packed in special boxes that will keep its temperature at minus 18 degrees Celsius, Health Access Secretary Carla Vizzott said earlier on Tuesday.
The direct flight to Russia will take around 17 hours and a six-hour stop in the Russian capital is anticipated, at which time the vaccines must be loaded aboard and all relevant paperwork must be completed.
The government intends to launch a mass vaccination programme by the end of the month. The Alberto Fernández administration hopes to immunise 10 million people in January and February, Health Minister Ginés González García said.
Argentina’s drug regulator ANMAT (Administración Nacional de Medicamentos, Alimentos y Tecnología Médica) must still approve the drug, though on Tuesday the agency offered emergency approval to the vaccine developed by US firm Pfizer and German laboratory BioNTech.
The Sputnik V vaccine was developed by the Nikolai Gamaleya Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology. Argentina’s agreement with Moscow includes provisions for 25 million doses. This first batch will serve to vaccinate 150,000 people, with each individual requiring two doses. Negotiations are already underway for larger shipments, with March and June the expected delivery dates.
Russia has already started a mass vaccination programme domestically for people 18-60 years old. Authorities have put the effectiveness of the shot at 91.4 percent.
The government has also signed agreements for the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and is signed up to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Covax scheme. It is seeking another deal with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, whose vaccine is already in use in other nations.
"We have been trying to get all the vaccines as soon as possible. In March we will have another 20 million doses of the Oxford vaccine," said Science and Technology Minister Roberto Salvarezza.
Amid reports of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus spreading in the United Kingdom, Argentina suspended all flights to and from the country on Sunday.
"Based on the recommendations of the Health Ministry, it was decided to allow only the arrival of the flight scheduled for this Monday at 9:00 AM (12H00GMT) at Ezeiza International Airport," the government said.
The passengers and crew of that flight "must comply with a seven-day quarantine, once they prove the requirements for entering the country: a PCR test with a negative result and COVID insurance," the statement said.
The government has called on citizens in Argentina to be responsible and remain cautious during the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Nationwide restrictions ordering mandatory social distancing have been in force since November 9 and were extended until January 31 last week.
* The Aerolíneas flight can be tracked via this link: https://www.flightradar24.com/ARG1060/2662b20d.