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What prevents Brazil from developing a COVID-19 vaccine?

September 18, 2021
topic:Health and Sanitation
tags:#Brazil, #COVID vaccine, #COVID-19
by:Ellen Nemitz
Sparse funding streams and a lack of institutional unity are thwarting Brazil's attempt to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine - a development that could save countless lives. Yet, some researchers remain optimistic and look to Brazil's scientific capabilities, healthcare system and overall public support of the vaccine as signs of hope. Could Brazil become the first Latin American nation to produce a COVID-19 vaccine?

In June 2020, various brands of vaccines were being developed worldwide to immunise populations against the Covid-19. During that time, a group of scientists at the Federal University of Parana (UFPR) in Brazil was studying the possible uses of a bioplastic made from a polymer - a byproduct from the alcohol industry - that could substitute the common plastic.

This nanoparticle had also been tried on vaccines previously, and so the Brazilian researchers decided to apply the same tactic to a vaccine against the Sars-CoV-2 virus. 

They have obtained good results so far. "Our vaccine does not seem to require any other substance to kick off the immune system. The polymer does alone what other adjuvants would do,” Breno Castello Branco Beirão, professor at the Basic Pathology Department at UFPR, told FairPlanet. 

Scientific findings are promising

The adjuvants - usually aluminum, according to Beirão - help boost the inflammatory system to work and, thus, to activate immunity. Creating a vaccine that prescinds from an adjuvant saves money: alone, it can add a cost of three euros per dose, while the whole vaccine developed by UFPR is expected to be sold at a cheaper price than this (around one euro per dose).

The technology being developed in Parana has also another benefit. By using the nanoparticle to carry the virus spicule into the immune system, the vaccine can be adapted for other viral diseases (such as Dengue and Zika, which is very common in Brazil), as well as for Covid-19 variants. Beirão has mentioned  that he is carrying out a preliminary study with a vaccine for ewes (he is a veterinarian by profession), and stated that this research is revealing good results, too.

Budgetary hurdles derail Brazil’s COVID-19 vaccine production

The UFPR vaccine is not ready for sale, however, and may not be in the short-term. A sizable investment in laboratories, professionals, materials and an industrial plant for production is still necessary in order to deliver a vaccine to the public. 

On the website created specifically to spread the news about the vaccine and raise funds for the third phase - clinical trials on humans - the aim is to crowdfund more than 12 million euros.  

Some federal agencies, the Parana state government and several public institutions have covered a small portion of the budget. Along with donations, the campaign has raised only 2 percent of the goal thus far. “In this case, it’s not enough to produce written science, scientific papers. It would be useful, but not as much as it would be to have a vaccine,” said the researcher. "That’s why we went through non-conventional routes of funding."

In an ideal world, Beirão explained, there would be a private partnership in place in order to materialise the plans - a pharmaceutical company, for example. That was the case of Oxford University, which relied on AstraZeneca’s expertise to create the commercial vaccine. In Brazil, however, such a partnership is unlikely to be forged. "We’ve decided to go until the end. But we feel that we are going much beyond what we would have to if there were an organised structure to support research,” said Beirão.

National coordination and private partnerships

There are several other studies pursuing a way to develop a national vaccine - at least 20, according to Akira Homma, former president of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and current Senior Scientific Adviser for Bio-Manguinhos Institute. Such studies include ones from the University of São Paulo (USP) and Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). 

Some Brazilian outlets have called this a “rush for the national vaccine,” but Homma disagrees with the approach, saying that all of these entities should work together. "Brazil lacks a competent authority of scientifically based professionals with experience in vaccine development and production, as well as financial resources to support the development of different projects,” Homma told FairPlanet. "It can't be just one [project], as a number of questions are still being answered over the time, and we're going to need second-generation vaccines."

Homma started working at Fiocruz in 1968, and believes that Brazil has all that it takes to be successful in developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Regardless of the decreasing investment in science and technology over the past years, there are good researchers interested in doing so. "We have groups of researchers in molecular biology, microbiology, immunology, which are absolutely important. If we could get this group together, with a central authority to support and finance, with governance, we would actually be able to get a vaccine very quickly,” he assessed.

Investing in research now is also an investment for the future. The basis for some of the vaccines currently being used to battle Covid-19 were developed many years ago as part of other studies, explained the UFPR researcher, Breno Beirão. The same could happen with the vaccine developed at UFPR, as well as others, in Brazil: they could save many lives within the next few years. 

Up to 30,000 lives could be saved per month

A study by the University of São Paulo (USP) and São Paulo State University (UNESP) estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 deaths caused by Covid-19 could have been prevented per month if the vaccination rollout had been faster in Brazil earlier this year. Besides, domestically developed vaccines would save public money and make the country less dependent on international supplies and international trade. 

However, the real impact is far greater: the technology developed at UFPR, for instance, could potentially serve to prevent other infections in the future (the Pan-American Health Organization estimates that 500 million people could become infected by Dengue in the Americas, for example - the viral disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is common in tropical regions).  

Brazil has been, in recent decades, a model to the world as far as vaccination programs are concerned. Thanks to a widespread public health system - known by its Portuguese acronym SUS - Brazil’s population has the right to access an entire scheme of vaccination that can protect against 23 diseases, according to the federal government. 

Alas, due to reasons such as the swelling anti-vaccination movement and paltry investment in public awareness campaigns, vaccination rates in Brazil have recently dropped to levels similar to those seen in the 1980’s.

There is still hope for Brazil’s vaccine

In spite of this, Brazilians continue to be willing to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Even as it lacks the doses needed to carry out mass immunisation, Brazil has given the first shots to nearly 65 percent of the population as of 13 September; the second dose has been administered to 33.4 percent of the population. 

Furthermore, the global survey "Youth Vaccine Trust”, carried out by UNICEF in July 2020, shows that Brazilian youths (18 to 30 year-olds) are more likely to receive a vaccine than their counterparts globally (at that time there were none available yet). 

Should a national vaccine be developed and offered to the population, confidence will be key in  overcoming fears inculcated by misinformation, for example. "It is necessary to have direct communication to the population about the importance of prevention and collective immunisation,” noted Akira Homma, adding that an expansive communication campaign is essential in order to reach all people. 

Besides, he said, the validation from Anvisa (Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency) is reliable and will be important in granting the population the necessary certainty that an eventual national vaccine is safe.

Image by: SJ objio

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2019-07-19 at 22.26.02
Ellen Nemitz
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A chemical engineering student, works with a test during the method of separating specific proteins to be applied in the production of vaccines at the Technological Vaccine Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
© Pedro Vilela via Getty Images
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Residents wait in line to receive a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the Jardim Edite UBS vaccination site in Sao Paulo.
© Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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