Chile becomes Latin America’s COVID-19 vaccination champion

By Eva Vergara and Patricia Luna | AP

March 14, 2021 at 10:07 p.m. GMT




SANTIAGO, Chile — After being among the world’s hardest-hit nations with COVID-19, Chile is now near the top among countries at vaccinating its population against the virus.


With more than 25% of its people having received at least one shot, the country of 19 million on South America’s Pacific coast is the champion of Latin America, and globally it is just behind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.


That’s a far cry from the beginning of the pandemic, when Chile was criticized over its inability to trace and isolate infected people.


So what is the secret to its success?


Government officials and health experts say it was the country’s early negotiations with vaccine producers, as well as its past experience with robust vaccination programs, a record praised by the World Health Organization.


During the first months of the pandemic, the headlines in Chile were bleak, with the country’s intensive care units almost full and the government unable to control the virus’s spread despite restrictions that included mandatory lockdowns.


But another story was developing in parallel that few people knew about, one that had begun months before and would later guarantee Chile fast access to vaccines.


Andrés Couve, Chile’s minister of science, told The Associated Press that formal negotiations with vaccine-producing companies started last April, only a month after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.


By May, Couve said, a team of experts and officials presented a plan to President Sebastián Piñera, including a road map about how to use the country’s network of trade agreements and its previous contacts with pharmaceutical companies to get vaccines once they were developed. Recommendations included being part of clinical trials.


This effort was helped by contacts made months earlier in China. In October 2019, Chilean biochemist Dr. Alexis Kalergis had traveled to Beijing with two Chilean colleagues for an international congress on immunology. There Kalergis met experts from the Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac Biotech Ltd.


Kalergis had already approached Sinovac about working on vaccine research. So when China announced in January 2020 that it had identified a new virus, and within weeks the world saw it spreading around the globe, Kalergis knew he needed to reach out to his colleagues at Sinovac.


“Taking advantage of our experience, the contacts and the interest that we expressed … we started conversations with Sinovac,” said Kalergis, director of the Milenio Institute for Immunology and Immunotherapy at Chile’s Catholic University.


He spoke to Sinovac colleagues in January and February 2020, then went to Catholic University Dean Ignacio Sánchez with the details, saying they needed to be passed on to the government.


Sánchez approached Chile’s health minister and foreign secretary, urging early negotiations with Sinovac and other pharmaceuticals and for Chile to be part of their clinical trials. The ministers agreed, and the Chilean government began making diplomatic contacts.


By June, long before any other country in Latin America, Chile had secured a contract with Sinovac, which agreed to deliver an early batch once the vaccine was authorized, Kalergis said.


Rodrigo Yáñez, undersecretary for international economic relations and lead negotiator with companies to get the vaccines, said Chile understood from the beginning that it needed to work with different pharmaceutical companies at the same time.


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