Crackdown on ‘vaccine sommeliers’ as Covid pandemic grips Brazil
Cities across Brazil are clamping down on “vaccine sommeliers” who seek to cherrypick their Covid shots despite the devastating epidemic still gripping Latin America’s largest nation.
More than half a million Brazilians have lost their lives to an outbreak the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, stands accused of ruinously mishandling. Yet some citizens have shown themselves to be perplexingly selective about which brand of vaccine they receive.
“We’re pioneering a new occupation here in Brazil: the vaccine sommeliers,” Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, complained last month amid mounting reports about over-picky residents turning down certain vaccines at health posts.
“The best vaccine is the one that goes into our arms,” insisted Paes, who recently lost his father, Valmar, to Covid-19.
Four vaccines are currently available through Brazil’s NHS-style public health service: Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, CoronaVac and Janssen. But for a mix of political, social and health reasons, some shots are being deemed more desirable than others.
Many have decided the Pfizer shot is most appealing thanks to reports of its more than 90% efficacy against symptomatic illness. Among supporters of the country’s far-right leader, however, there are those who are suspicious of Pfizer’s vaccine, which Bolsonaro once quipped might turn recipients into alligators. Others are distrustful of the Chinese Coronavac shot, which Brazil’s Beijing-bashing president has also maligned. Authorities have blamed fake news for reports that some are also shunning the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In recent weeks, social media groups dedicated to tracking down users’ chosen shots have been set up, attracting thousands of followers. “Has anyone got the list of posts with Pfizer and Janssen today?” the user of one such network asked on Tuesday morning as Rio sommeliers scrambled to find their preferred shots.
Experts warn such pickiness could hinder a vaccination campaign already delayed by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to acquire sufficient vaccines and the president’s personal opposition to vaccination. Only 13% of Brazilians have been fully vaccinated compared with 15% of Mexicans, half the UK population and 56% of Chileans.
“A vaccine isn’t like a bottle of wine where you can go into a shop and pick whichever you want because there’s an abundance of brands, origins and dates,” said Natalia Pasternak, a scientist and campaigner. “Vaccination is a public health strategy and, in Brazil particularly, the lack of vaccines means we cannot choose.”
Besides, Pasternak added, Brazilians did not need to: “The vaccines are all equally capable of … [keeping you] out of hospital and out of the cemetery.
“When people are starving you feed them – you don’t waste time trying to choose the best seasoning.”
Politicians have begun taking action to thwart the sommeliers, with at least five cities in São Paulo announcing sanctions. In São Bernardo do Campo and São Caetano do Sul those who decline specific vaccines will be forced to join the back of the queue and will only be vaccinated once all over-18s have been immunised.
On Monday, the north-eastern city of Recife announced that sommeliers who rejected a particular shot would be forced to wait 60 days for another chance. Last week the south-eastern city of Guarapari said citizens would no longer be informed which vaccine they would receive when booking their appointment.
Pasternak urged Brazilians to take whichever vaccine was available: “What we need to do to control this pandemic is vaccinate the greatest possible number of people in the shortest possible time.”