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Why Chile’s rapid vaccine rollout has failed to prevent Covid surge

Lockdown measures reimposed as coronavirus cases hit record high despite world-leading inoculation campaign

Chile is ramping up lockdown restrictions and closing its borders as the country’s speedy vaccination campaign fails to prevent a spike in Covid cases.

More than a third of the 19 million-strong population have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with only Israel and the UK inoculating a great percentage of their citizens, according to latest tracking data

But Chile’s jabs campaign has not stopped an uptick in infections that saw the country record 7,626 new Covid cases in a single day last week - a new record.

Third wave

Chile’s rapid vaccination campaign has been attributed to early negotiations that saw the country secure tens of millions of doses of various coronavirus vaccines. The resulting jabs rollout has been “faster than any other country in the Americas”, triggering hopes of Chile becoming “among the first in the world to reach herd immunity”, reports The New York Times (NYT).

However, “the numbers don’t tell the full story”, says openDemocracy.

Chile is using two vaccines, the Chinese-developed CoronaVac and the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, which is being widely used in Europe. The majority of the vaccines administered in Chile have been the CoronaVac, which “studies show offers only 50% effective protection against infection”, the news and analysis site continues.

In other words, “out of 100 people vaccinated with two doses of CoronaVac, half of them remain at risk to be infected by the virus”.

Despite this relatively low level of efficacy compared with the leading Western-developed Covid jabs, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera began reopening the country in January, when the vaccine campaign was in its infancy.

Experts say this early easing of restrictions “lulled people into thinking that the worst of the pandemic was over and dropping their guard”, The Times reports - with disastrous results.

Since then, “deaths have climbed over 100 a day for the first time since June”, says The Telegraph. With case rates continuing to rise, Pinera has been forced into an about turn, announcing “a new lockdown covering 80% of the population and including the capital, Santiago”, the paper adds.

The tightening of the rules comes as the surge leaves “intensive-care units operating with few beds to spare and the system at a breaking point”, says the NYT.

‘Cautionary tale’

The new lockdown restrictions have seen the government “shut down local markets and advised residents to use food delivery services”, Al Jazeera reports. But many Chileans are concerned about not being able to work after a year of unstable conditions.

“There’s so much uncertainty, you don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next,” Nilda Bravo, a 63-year-old housekeeper, told the broadcaster. “There’s no money, as there’s no work, so how can we pay extra for someone to bring us food?”

President Pinera has committed to continuing to provide support handouts that range from $33 (£23.83) to $135 (£97.48) a month per person, depending on the time spent in lockdown. But “the social security measures do not provide sufficient support - raising concerns about how they will survive another strict lockdown”, Al Jazeera adds.

Meanwhile, health experts had warned that unlocking the country too quickly once again would create a “a false sense of security” and “a sharp spike in new infections and deaths that is overloading the health care system”, the NYT says.

In January, Chileans were allowed to travel domestically, with schools reopening their doors in March. The government has also been welcoming holidaymakers from abroad since November last year, raising the spectre of new variants being brought in from neighbouring South American nations that are also battling high levels of Covid infections.

Events in Chile are being closely watched by the UK’s most senior medical experts. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told the Downing Street daily press briefing yesterday that “we absolutely need to learn from those countries that are far ahead of us or alongside us in terms of vaccine rollout”.

Citing Israel and Chile, Whitty said that “this is the reason we want to do things in a steady way”. Chile “is quite a good corrective” to “the assumption that just because you vaccinate lots of people then the problem goes away”, he added.

As the crisis continues to prove his point, President Pinera has asked Chile’s Congress to delay a vote scheduled for early April to elect the representatives who will draft a new national constitution. In a statement last week, Pinera said that “protecting the health of our compatriots has always been our first priority”.

All the same, Chile’s surging case rates and overwhelmed hospitals will serve as a “cautionary tale for other nations looking to vaccination drives to quickly put an end to the era of beleaguered economies, closed borders and social distancing”, says the NYT.


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