BBEFORE THE pandemic, Celso Vigo walked 90 minutes every day in the streets of Serrana, a town of 45,000 people surrounded by sugar cane fields in the state of São Paulo. But when covid-19 hit, the retired 75-year-old bank worker, who played football “until his sixties,” was reduced to looping around his house. It reminded him how much Brazil was going in circles too. After a second wave killed 87,000 people in April, cases and deaths remain high.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
But Serrana was given a way out. Between February and April, all adults received injections as part of a study by the Butantan Institute, which produces CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by Sinovac, a Chinese company. Over 95% of serranenses got bitten, despite Jair Bolsonaro, the president, claiming it was dangerous. Preliminary results released on May 31 showed symptomatic cases and deaths decreased by 80% and 95%, respectively. Only two covid-19 patients remain hospitalized in the local clinic (both refused the vaccine). Mr. Vigo is beating the sidewalks again.
Serrana is a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate reality in Brazil, one in which Mr Bolsonaro did not waste his chances of mounting an effective public health campaign and, later, purchasing vaccines. But the study also has global implications. In phase three trials, CoronaVac had efficacy rates as low as 50%, the minimum required by the WHO. The lower the efficiency, the higher the proportion of people who need to be bitten to slow down the contagion. The Serrana trial sought to discover this part. The city was split into four cohorts, which were stung over successive weeks. Contagion dropped dramatically after three of the four received two doses of the vaccine, suggesting herd immunity is around 75% reached.
These results could boost vaccination across Brazil, hopes epidemiologist Ethel Maciel. But 75% is far. Only 11% of Brazilians are fully vaccinated and the rate has slowed due to a shortage of ingredients for CoronaVac, which are imported from China. Chile, which has vaccinated 45% of its population, mainly with CoronaVac, is also suffering from near-record cases.
But Serrana herself has become an oasis. One recent morning, children ran around a fountain in the square. Across the street, a fabric store catering to older women had a constant flow of customers. A band of old men occupied their usual benches. They discussed Mr Bolsonaro’s decision to host the Copa América, a football tournament, even though a third wave seems imminent. “Stupid,” said a 97-year-old man. Half of them dispersed when a stranger showed up. “We are always afraid,” explains Florivaldo Leandro, a retired police officer. Serrana’s calm came at a price, he said. “We have lost friends, neighbors and relatives. Our conscience has been imposed on us.
All of our pandemic and vaccine related stories can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus in Europe and America.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Now for some good news”