RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said Wednesday his administration is suspending an effort to buy hundreds of millions of syringes just as the country is preparing to launch a nationwide vaccination campaign against COVID-19.
Bolsonaro said on his social media channels that prices for syringes have soared, so, “The Health Ministry has suspended the purchase until prices return to normal.”
He also said states and municipalities possess enough stock to handle the first stage of the forthcoming immunization campaign “because the amount of vaccines at first is not big.”
The government posted its tender for 331 million syringes on Dec. 16, but received bids for only 8 million by the Dec. 29 deadline, apparently because companies were demanding a higher price than the government-set maximum.
After meeting with Brazil’s three main syringe producers, Health Ministry officials initially said they would publish a new tender, seeking more offers.
Bolsonaro’s comments on Wednesday seemed to halt such efforts.
Some health experts said the government should have acted far sooner to secure syringes for the nation of some 210 million people.
Ethel Maciel, an epidemiologist at the Federal University of Espirito Santo who at one point advised the Health Ministry on its immunization plan, said she was frightened when she found out in a December meeting that officials had not yet signed a contract for syringes.
“We risked having a vaccine, but no syringes,” Maciel said. “If they had started planning back in July, they wouldn’t have this problem with prices,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Brazilian Medical Devices Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the three main syringe producers, said the suspension of the tender came as a surprise. “We learned about it in the media,” the person told The Associated Press, declining to be named for lack of authorization to speak publicly.
Deaths and detected infections of the new coronavirus have been surging in the nation, adding pressure on the government to start administering shots. While other countries in the region have started vaccinations, Brazil’s health regulator hasn’t yet approved any vaccines, and the Health Ministry hasn’t provided a definite rollout date for its program.
Officials in Brazil’s most populous state, Sao Paulo, say they plan to start vaccinations on Jan. 25 if regulators approve the Chinese-developed CoronaVac shot they have contracted for, and state officials say they have 71 million needles stocked.
For its part, the federal government expects to receive 2 million of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shots this month and could start vaccinations in February.
Federal officials this week requisitioned 30 million syringes from the three medical device producers, though details have not yet been worked out, according to the spokesperson for the Brazilian Medical Devices Manufacturers’ Association.
The Economy Ministry on Wednesday also temporarily scrapped import taxes on syringes in order to facilitate the fight against COVID-19.
“Eliminating taxes doesn’t mean it will be available on the market,” said Simplício Araújo, secretary of industry, commerce and energy in the state of Maranhao.
That northeastern state is among several that have been worried about the federal response and are working either together or individually to acquire supplies of their own.
“We are building a Plan B,” Araújo told The Associated Press. He said he had already been hunting for syringes for his state but declined to say if he had found any.
Earlier in the pandemic, Araújo had used his Chinese contacts to orchestrate a complex scheme to bring ventilators in a commercial freighter via Ethiopia, bypassing slow-moving federal bureaucracy.
“The government does not understand what the country and the world are experiencing,” Araújo said. “The faster we prepare, the more chances we will have to sign a contract for a vaccine and for syringes.”
That disappointment was echoed by the state’s governor, Flávio Dino, a frequent critic of the president’s handling of the pandemic. “Once again, the wrong decision,” said Dino in a Twitter post reacting to Wednesday’s announcement.
Several states are setting records for new COVID-19 cases, though the nation as a whole last week reported an average 713 deaths per day, down from a peak of more than 1,000 daily deaths sustained for months in 2020.