Sao Paulo Shuts Down as Fears Grow Over Brazil COVID-19 Outbreak

By Eduardo Simões and Pedro Fonseca

March 04, 2021

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Sao Paulo state announced tough measures on Wednesday to slow a snowballing coronavirus outbreak that has sparked international concern, prompting Brazil's government to end its spat with Pfizer and agree to a 100-million-dose vaccine deal.

Taken together, the partial lockdown in Sao Paulo and the deal with Pfizer Inc highlight mounting concerns about Brazil's situation. The country is facing its deadliest stretch since the pandemic began due to a homegrown variant dubbed the P1, scarce restrictions to slow the virus and a patchy vaccine rollout.

Brazil, which has the world's highest coronavirus death toll after the United States, is seeing daily fatalities hit records, just as they are falling in North America and parts of Western Europe. That risks internationally isolating Latin America's biggest country as other nations seek to shore up their gains against the virus.

The Sao Paulo announcement, made by state Governor João Doria, is likely to irk far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who shuns lockdowns and has long sought to diminish the importance of the virus. But more states and cities are likely to follow Sao Paulo's lead as their health systems are pushed to the breaking point.

Starting on Saturday, Sao Paulo's bars and restaurants will operate only via delivery, while malls and non-essential businesses will be shut, Doria said.

The measures are due to last two weeks, he said, adding that the state was receiving a new patient in intensive care units every two minutes. Sao Paulo city is home to some 12.3 million people, part of the 46.3 million who inhabit Sao Paulo state.

To make matters worse, questions remain about the suitability of Brazil's stretched vaccine portfolio - comprising an AstraZeneca shot, and another vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd - against the P1 variant.

In a sign of growing concerns in the federal capital, Brasilia, the Health Ministry will sign a deal for 100 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, according to the Globo New cable channel. The agreement was confirmed by a government source with knowledge of the plan.

Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro and other senior officials publicly chafed for weeks at Pfizer's demands for a liability waiver, saying the terms were unacceptable. Pfizer has said many other nations had agreed to identical deals.

International fears are mounting about the P1 variant, which arose in the northern city of Manaus, and has since been identified across the world, leading to tighter regulations on Brazilian travelers.

The domestic situation is particularly critical. Blame is increasingly landing on Bolsonaro's lap.

Earlier this week, 16 Brazilian governors accused him of misleading the country. The national association of state health secretaries also criticized Brasilia, complaining of a piecemeal approach by each state and city, calling for a national curfew and the closure of airports.