Government officials have confirmed Argentina is on the verge of beginning its Covid-19 mass vaccination programme, after the successful arrival of a shipment of 300,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The first batch arrived in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve from Russia, carried by a plane from state carrier Aerolíneas Argentinas that embarked on a round-trip to Moscow two days earlier.
Following the flight’s touchdown at Ezeiza International Airport, images of the vaccine’s arrival were broadcast on television channels and social media networks.
According to government officials, speaking prior to Christmas Day, the rollout of the vaccine will begin next week, at a date that will be decided by Boxing Day. The doses have already been transferred to provinces across the country.
Ahead of its arrival, Sputnik V was approved on “an emergency basis" on Wednesday by the Health Ministry, the Russian vaccine’s first authorisation in Latin America. Argentina is now one of three nations (Russia and Belarus being the others) to approve the vaccine’s use, which is still in Phase III clinical trials.
The Health Ministry said its decision was based on a recommendation to "advance the emergency authorisation" from Argentina’s National Administration of Medicines, Food and Medical Technology (ANMAT).
In a statement, ANMAT said “the known and potential benefits for the health of the population are greater than the uncertainty that may exist."
"The product presents an acceptable benefit-risk balance," it concluded.
Argentina’s government has an agreement with Russia that will allow for another 19.7 million doses that will be delivered between January and February, with the option to buy five million more.
"We are confident in continuing this process, that begins today, of vaccination for Argentines. The first 300,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine have reached our country," said Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, speaking at a press conference alongside Health Minister Ginés González García and Russia’s Ambassador to Argentina Dmitry Feoktistov.
The vaccine is "the hope of liberation from the fear of the pandemic that we have lived through for almost a year," said Feoktistov, noting that Argentina "is one of the first countries in Latin America to receive the Russian product."
Russia's Direct Investment Fund, or RDIF, the country's sovereign wealth fund, said in a statement issued Thursday that the Sputnik vaccine has 91.4 percent efficacy, based on recent trials. Against severe coronavirus cases, the vaccine had 100 percent efficacy, it added.
"There were 20 severe cases of coronavirus infection among confirmed cases in the placebo group and no severe cases in the vaccine group," it said, revealing that the cost of one dose is less than US$10 for international markets.
President Alberto Fernandez thanked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a post on Twitter on Thursday for the “commitment” he had shown to Argentina. The Peronist leader said the shipment will kickstart the biggest vaccination campaign in the nation’s history.
Fernández said earlier this month he hoped to vaccinate 300,000 Argentines before the end of the year, and 10 million citizens in the first two months of 2021 using the Russian shot.
The huge logistical operation to transfer the doses to distribution centres to provinces across the country and later to health centres equipped for immunisation has already begun. Healthcare professionals working on the frontline will be the first to receive the vaccine.
Vaccination will begin in all the districts simultaneously next week, on a day that will be defined by Boxing Day by President Alberto Fernández and provincial governors, Cafiero revealed.
The government plans to acquire a total of 51 million doses to cover its 44-million population, which will involve 116,000 trained professionals who will deliver the jabs. More than 7,500 clinics and health centres have been equipped to inoculate Argentines, according to the government. In addition, 10,000 volunteers will be utilised to assist.
"A total of 22.4 million doses have already been bought and paid for with AstraZeneca [a pharmaceutical company that developed another vaccine with the University of Oxford] and nine million to Covax," the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) scheme to supply nations, confirmed González García.
The minister also said that the government was in talks to purchase vaccines developed in China.
ANMAT has also approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and is in negotiations to reach an agreement for the supply of that vaccine.
To date, Argentina has recorded more than 42,000 deaths from Covid-19 and more than 1.5 million confirmed cases. After weeks of cases in decline, the country’s Covid curve has begun to rise again amid more international travel and holiday gatherings.
“It’s very important that Argentina starts to vaccinate as soon as possible,” Health Access Secretary Carla Vizzotti said in a radio interview this week.
The vaccine “is a fundamental tool to minimise the impact,” she added.
Two weeks ago, the government announced it was extending social distancing rules to combat the spread of Covid-19 until January 31.
After around nine months of strict coronavirus lockdown – one of the longest quarantine periods in the world – Argentina entered a new stage of Preventive and Obligatory Social Distancing (DISPO) on November 9. Under those regulations, citizens must maintain a distance of two metres from each other and use a facemask in shared spaces.