- Covid-19 caseloads have been dropping across Latin America and the Caribbean in recent weeks.
- During October, South America has accounted for under 6% of new global daily cases versus 35-40% in June.
- The improving picture is encouraging but there are several challenges facing the region in the weeks and months ahead.
Vaccine rollout : Stuttering early campaigns and delivery bottlenecks (and in the case of Brazil and Argentina, procurement problems needlessly created by their own governments) have now given way to much more consistent rollouts across much of the region. The top five countries in the region by population (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru) have all administered at least one vaccine dose to over 50% of their populations. At least one-third of each is fully vaccinated. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said last week that the region as a whole is on track to vaccinate 40% of its population by the end of 2021.
Booster jabs : booster shots are being applied to select groups in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, and will be in Argentina. It remains to be seen how far these campaigns will go, but they should help boost waning immune protection among vulnerable groups.
Antibodies : studies suggest that immunity for people who get vaccinated after a Covid-19 infection can last longer. The region's high infection rates from earlier stages of the pandemic may therefore have enhanced vaccine effectiveness.
Limited vaccine hesitancy : Anti-vax movements have not gained significant traction. Past waves of infection are likely to have encouraged vaccine take-up. Historical factors may also have helped: Brazil, where the successful eradication of smallpox and polio boosted uptake, has seen high acceptance rates for Covid-19 vaccines – 90% according to recent polls.
Political lifts : politics has been mostly benign for the vaccine rollout. A change in government in Ecuador turbo-charged its vaccination campaign. Vaccinations continued in Peru despite a period of deep political uncertainty. There is another, unspoken political compact that may have helped: citizens expect vaccines and politicians can demonstrate their can-do capabilities by providing them. This helps explain the vaccine push in the run-up to Mexico's June mid-term elections, when electoral considerations took precedence over AMLO's previous belittling of the virus. The same could be said of Brazil, where Bolsonaro has an eye on the 2022 presidential election.
Local production : the region no longer relies purely on vaccines produced externally. The AstraZeneca (AZ) production agreement between Mexico and Argentina is finally up-and-running; doses produced across the two countries now account for 24% of Argentina's available doses. Argentina is also producing Sputnik, and Mexico should start on the Russian vaccine soon. Mexico is also bottling CanSino doses. Currently, Brazil is still importing the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) to produce AZ and Sinovac vaccines. The horizon also looks positive: Brazil is likely to produce its own vaccines by 2022. Brazil's federal health institute Fiocruz will receive technical support from the WHO to develop an mRNA shot, while the Sao Paulo-state Butatan center is performing stage-one trials for its immunizer, Butanvac. Pfizer has also established a partnership with Eurofarma for Brazilian production of its vaccines starting in 2022.
Latin America shares many of the same challenges as the rest of the world over the next six months. These include the possible emergence of new, vaccine- resistant variants or subvariants; increased transmission risks over winter; the simultaneous circulation of seasonal flu and Covid-19; and behavioral factors, none more important than a reduced perception of risk as the pandemic appears to recede. Other factors include the following:
New variant risks : Delta continues to advance, though at varying speeds. The strain is now dominant in Brazil's main cities. Chile's Santiago Metropolitan Region (RM) has seen its caseload nearly double over the past four weeks as the Delta variant became the dominant coronavirus strain; Chile's caseload is currently at its highest in three months (though hospitalization rates remain stable). However, Argentina's strict restrictions on inbound travel have apparently succeeded in buying time to continue vaccinating before Delta becomes the country's dominant strain.
Normalization : as elsewhere, the lifting of travel restrictions and social distancing protocols, the resumption of mass gatherings, public transport normalization, and re-opening of schools, will all test vaccine effectiveness. Argentina is lifting its travel restrictions in the coming weeks and months; Mexico City will hold a Day of the Dead parade and a Formula 1 Grand Prix in early November, while across Latin America, Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations followed by carnival in 2022 will test the region's resilience.
Country gaps : the PAHO last week warned that six smaller countries in the region, including Guatemala and Nicaragua, have not yet reached 20% vaccination coverage. Booster shot campaigns could end up deepening variations in vaccinations rates between countries. As the World Health Organization (WHO) regularly asserts, the pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere, which has extra relevance given rising migration levels across the region could act as a vector for spreading the virus.
Demographic gaps : despite the progress on vaccines, significant numbers remain unvaccinated or partially jabbed. The deadliness of any Covid resurgence will depend on how many unvaccinated there are among older age group and the more clinically vulnerable. The Peruvian example is informative: as of 14 October, 16% of over 60s (around 660,000 people) were still not fully vaccinated. Cases could also rise if booster uptake falls short in vulnerable groups.
Vaccine variance : the fact that only foreign visitors who have been fully vaccinated with a drug approved by the WHO can enter the US could create complications among some Latin American countries that have used Sputnik, for example, which could reduce take-up of these vaccines.
Lockdowns : it is far from clear that populations would accept new lockdowns should they come under consideration – and not just for economic reasons. In Argentina, scandals over officials' flouting of health regulations has undermined public confidence and would probably result in low compliance in the event of new restrictions.