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UPDATE 1-Brazil governors to buy vaccines directly due to slow federal rollout

·2 min read

(Adds comments by CEO of pharmaceutical company)

BRASILIA, March 2 (Reuters) - Brazilian state governors scrambling to secure COVID-19 vaccines said on Tuesday they are getting together to bypass President Jair Bolsonaro's government and buy shots directly because of delays in the federal inoculation program.

Half of Brazil's 26 governors visited pharmaceutical company União Quimica in Brasilia, which will produce Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. São Paulo's government said it will buy 20 million doses.

Sputnik V would have to be authorized for emergency use by Brazil's health regulator Anvisa before the doses can be used.

Piauí Governor Wellington Dias said they hope Anvisa can authorize emergency use by next week, but União Quimica's top executive said in an interview that the company is still filing paperwork.

Brazilian states, facing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that are overburdening their hospital wards, are frustrated with the Bolsonaro administration's failure to secure timely supplies of vaccines.

With more than a quarter of a million Brazilians dead from COVID-19 - the world's second-deadliest outbreak - Brazil is seeing its highest weekly tolls since the pandemic began a year ago. Yet little more than 3% of its 210 million people have been vaccinated.

União Quimica, a private company that produces human and animal medicines, plans to start producing the Russian vaccine in April in a transfer of technology from Moscow's Gamaleya Institute that includes local production of the shot's active ingredients.

Company Chief Executive Fernando Marques said he expects to make 90 million Sputnik V doses this year, but how many will be available to Brazilian states or exported to neighboring countries will depend on the volume demanded by his company's priority customer, the federal government.

"We will start producing in April and only then will we be able to see what surplus we can supply," he said by telephone.

So far, Brazil has relied on limited supplies of the Chinese vaccine Coronavac, made by Sinovac, and AstraZeneca Plc's vaccine developed with Oxford University.

João Doria, governor of São Paulo - the country's most populous state - said this week his government would bypass the federal Health Ministry if it failed to supply the needed vaccines. On Tuesday, he told reporters his state will go ahead and buy 20 million doses of the Russian vaccine. (Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello in Brasilia and Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)