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Ecuador says first batch of 18 million contracted doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrive

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QUITO, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Ecuador said the first batch of 18 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines it contracted for with three pharmaceutical companies and the COVAX initiative arrived on Wednesday for a pilot plan with medical staff from public hospitals and nursing homes.

After several months of negotiations, Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos said the Andean nation had firm contracts with pharmaceutical companies Covaxx, Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca for the delivery of 10 million doses and with the global COVAX initiative, led by the World Health Organization and GAVI vaccine alliance to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, for 8 million additional doses.

"Each country wants to have more vaccines," Zevallos said in a press call. "And these commitments, which have already been made, ensure that we vaccinate 9 million people."

Ecuador has 17.4 million people and allocated some $200 million for the purchase of vaccines.

A first shipment from Pfizer arrived at Quito's international airport on Wednesday afternoon for distribution to 44 municipalities in the next three weeks. Those vaccines are part of a batch of 86,000 emergency doses that will be delivered by the U.S. company through the end of February.

In recent weeks, Ecuador has seen an increase in the speed of virus transmission in several cities, leading intensive care units in public and private hospitals to almost reach capacity.

There has also been an increase in coronavirus deaths in Guayaquil, which endured one of the worst outbreaks in the region last March and April.

Vaccinations will begin in Quito, the capital, on Thursday, as well as in Guayaquil and Cuenca. A more comprehensive process will begin in March and is expected to end in October, the minister added.

Ecuador has reported more than 234,000 infections and 9,810 deaths from COVID-19. There are also 4,627 probable deaths from the virus, the country's Health Ministry added.

Zevallos said the government was in negotiations with other pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Novavax Inc and China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd, but that does not imply the amount of doses contracted will be increased.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Peter Cooney)