Argentina is continuing to face difficulties in acquiring sufficient vaccines for its mass inoculation campaign against Covid-19, amid big delays in lab deliveries of doses and a renewed sense of urgency as new cases mount up.
Officials welcomed a new shipment of one million doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine on Thursday, and another half a million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V are due at Ezeiza international airport later today. Yet jabs cannot arrive quickly enough for the government, with officials fearing the country is about to be hit by a second wave of contagion.
Government officials this week said vaccination was their priority, though they called on citizens to take precautions and remain vigilant.
"I am putting all my effort in so that the vaccines arrive as soon as possible, I am not going to give up. We have to make every effort to vaccinate our older citizens," President Alberto Fernández declared in an interview with Radio 10 this week.
Fears are growing as confirmed cases rise both inside the country and in the territory of Argentina’s neighbouring nations. On Friday, the Health Ministry confirmed 9,902 new infections and 82 deaths, pushing the cumulative total to 2.37 million and 56,023 fatalities.
Confirmed cases in Argentina have jumped this week. On Wednesday alone there were 16,056 infections – 7,000 more than a week before and the country's highest daily figure since October 21, 2020, when 18,326 cases were recorded in one day, in the middle of the first wave.
The government hopes to speed up its vaccination campaign before the end of April. By then, the most at-risk groups will already have been vaccinated, said Fernández on Thursday. Over the past week, renewed fears of a second wave of infections have increased, while scientists also confirmed that four new variants of the virus are now circulating among communities in national territory.
To date, more than 4.1 million people in Argentina have been vaccinated with the first dose, with a further 600,000 also receiving their second jab, according to the public vaccination register.
The tally is far from Fernández’s original target, who had been counting on 20 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from the Russian lab Gamaleya by the end of February, with the possibility of five million more.
Despite providing volunteers for Phase III testing of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Argentina did not close any contract with the US pharmaceutical giant but is receiving vaccines from the Chinese group Sinopharm, as well as AstraZeneca via the Covax mechanism.
Meanwhile the advance of the agreement reached with Mexico for the joint production and distribution in Latin America of the AstraZeneca vaccine-Oxford University shot is awaited.
The vaccine shortage has driven the government to defer second doses, a move that sparked debate and controversy last week.
Easter week began with 14,014 new cases, the highest peak since October (surpassed twice later in the week), as well as confirming that four new variants (Manaos, Rio de Janeiro, California and the British) were circulating in the community.
"We are in a crucial moment of the pandemic," Gabriela Piovano of Muñiz Hospital, a respected specialist in infectology, told the AFP news agency in an interview.
"As from December the cases started to increase, this time in youngsters with less risk of evolving into a serious condition," she pointed out while warning: "But if we do nothing, even if the people infected are mostly young, the system will end up collapsing in the long run."
The curve of contagion has jumped up in the last fortnight, passing from 6,164 new cases in mid-March to 16,056 on Wednesday.
As of Friday evening, the occupation of intensive therapy beds is 55.9 percent nationwide, rising to 61.9 percent in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA in its Spanish acronym) with almost 15 million inhabitants.
"Although the hospitals are equipped, the most critical situation is with the intensive therapy staff suffering psychological stress and burnout," said Rosa Reina, president of the Argentine Society of Intensive Therapy.
According to the doctor, "there are institutions whose intensive therapy wards are already 80 percent", while "we see increasingly younger patients averaging around 55 years old," which she attributed to their "being the ones who take the least care of themselves."
Vaccination or isolation?
"The second wave has already begun, no doubt about it," affirmed Buenos Aires Province Cabinet Chief Carlos Bianco when announcing new restrictions for the province last Tuesday. Others have been less clear cut, indicating that higher caseloads are on their way.
"We believe that we are starting the second wave, with a sustained increase in cases, which raises concern," Health Minister Carla Vizzotti told AM530 radio on Thursday.
Despite the surge, internal mobility will not be limited during Easter weekend although land frontiers remain closed and flights from Chile, Mexico and Brazil have been suspended. All flights from Britain have long been cancelled.
Eduardo López, one of the infectologists advising the government, said this week that "the key is to accelerate vaccination."
"It is necessary to make the more vulnerable population immune, those aged over 60, but through to Easter week less than 20 percent of a total 7.5 million had received a single dose," he explained.
The vaccination plan gives priority to health-workers, teachers, strategic state staff and older adults."The vaccine is the way out of this situation but only in the long run," evaluated Piovano.
Community circulation is eradicated "via herd immunity, which will depend on 75 percent of people being vaccinated and we’re only at around three percent. A long, long way to go," she said.
"The only preventive measure for now, apart from the vaccine, is quarantine," indicated the doctor.
In her opinion, although the government might well delay that decision, it will be inevitable.
"If [the system] collapses, nobody will argue, they won’t need anything to impose it because in reality it will be the virus imposing it," she maintained.
Ignoring the Easter break, vaccination continued at the Centenario stadium in the town of Quilmes, on the southern outskirts of the capital on Thursday. Dozens of people aged over 70 years old paraded through to receive a jab.
"Today we continue with the challenge of continuing with vaccination. But we need to continue taking care of ourselves to avoid infections and to ensure this second wave that we are already going through is not something that ends with a collapse of the health system," warned Quilmes Mayor Mayra Mendoza.
Justina García, a 74-year-old retiree, had just received her first dose of. "I am very happy. My body can't contain all the joy that I have. I have waited for this moment for a while," she said.
For the second dose, Justina will have to wait three months. "I will be as anxious as at this moment," she said.
"People are careless. I was locked up in my house for a year and a half, people should do the same," she launches, angered by the second wave.