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Brazilian City Sees COVID-19 Deaths Fall by 95% After Sinovac Vaccine Used

Newsweek logo Newsweek 6/1/2021 Zoe Strozewski
a sign on the side of a road: An aerial view of the entrance of Serrana, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, Friday, May 28, 2021. Brazil's Butantan Institute has finished a mass vaccination of the city's entire adult population with doses of Sinovac, to test the new coronavirus' behavior in response to the vaccine. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) © Andre Penner/AP Photo An aerial view of the entrance of Serrana, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, Friday, May 28, 2021. Brazil's Butantan Institute has finished a mass vaccination of the city's entire adult population with doses of Sinovac, to test the new coronavirus' behavior in response to the vaccine. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

After all adult residents of the Brazilian city of Serrana were offered a trial Sinovac vaccine, deaths have decreased by 95% in the community.

On top of the falling death rates, the city of 46,000 has also seen hospitalizations go down by 86% and symptomatic cases go down by 80%, the Associated Press reported. The improvements have established Serrana as a unique refuge from the increasing outbreaks and uncertainty in other parts of the world.

"We're now as full as we used to be," Rogério Silva, an employee for a store that sells cheap refreshments and snacks, said in an interview. "Weeks ago, people wouldn't form a line in here, wouldn't eat in, and I wouldn't let them use the bathroom. Now it's back."

Only one person with COVID-19, a 63-year old woman, is currently in critical condition in Serrana's Dr. Geraldo Cesar Reis clinic. The 63-year old woman refused the Sinovac vaccine to wait for a Pfizer dose instead, but most of those eligible chose to participate in the trial, the Associated Press reported.

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The World Health Organization approved the Sinovac vaccine for emergency use for people 18 and older Tuesday, the second vaccine authorization of the kind for the developer.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

The experiment known as "Project S" lasted four months and tested Sinovac's shot in real-world conditions. The preliminary results made public Monday suggest the pandemic can be controlled if three-quarters of the population is fully vaccinated with Sinovac, said Ricardo Palacios, a director at Sao Paulo state's Butantan Institute and coordinator of the study, which was not peer-reviewed.

"The most important result was understanding that we can control the pandemic even without vaccinating the entire population," Palacios said.

The results offer hope to hundreds of millions of people, especially in developing nations. Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and others are also reliant on the Chinese shot, which is cheaper than vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

The city's population was split into four geographic areas regardless of age and gender, and most adults received two shots by the end of April. Results released Monday showed that the pandemic was controlled after three of the areas had been vaccinated. It was not clear if vaccine uptake was the same in each area.

The project "shows the protection exists and that the vaccine is effective. No doubt," Gonzalo Vecina, one of the founders of Brazil's health regulator and a medical school professor, told the Associated Press.

Likewise, Denise Garrett, vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which advocates for expanding global vaccine access, called the results "good and very encouraging."

Both Vecina and Garrett said unanswered questions remain and that more data is needed to properly analyze the results, including information about people who got shots but did not develop immunity.

The city's population was split into four geographic areas regardless of age and gender, and most adults received two shots by the end of April. Results released Monday showed that the pandemic was controlled after three of the areas had been vaccinated. It was not clear if vaccine uptake was the same in each area.

The project "shows the protection exists and that the vaccine is effective. No doubt," Gonzalo Vecina, one of the founders of Brazil's health regulator and a medical school professor, told The Associated Press.

Likewise, Denise Garrett, vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which advocates for expanding global vaccine access, called the results "good and very encouraging."

Both Vecina and Garrett said unanswered questions remain and that more data is needed to properly analyze the results, including information about people who got shots but did not develop immunity.

The spread of the virus in Serrana slowed while neighboring communities like Ribeirao Preto, just 12 miles west, saw COVID-19 surge. The upswing was largely blamed on more contagious variants.

Hospitals in Ribeirao Preto are so full of COVID-19 patients that the mayor imposed strict shutdown measures last week, including halting public transportation and limiting hours for the city's 700,000 residents to buy groceries. Some will wait months for their vaccines. Almost all shops are closed, and 95% of intensive-care unit beds are occupied by virus patients.

Elmano Silveira, 54, works at a local drugstore and for the first time wishes he lived in Serrana, which was looked down upon before the vaccination drive.

"My friends from there used to call me all the time. ... Now I'm the one calling them," Silveira said. "Before the pandemic, we had a big city vibe here. It was really busy. Now it's like a desert."

Just months ago, it was Serrana struggling to cope, according to Dr. João Antonio Madalosso Jr. For every patient who recovered in the first three months of 2021, two more arrived in bad shape, he said.

"Then, by the end of January, we heard this project was coming to Serrana. And calmness set in, little by little," said Madalosso, 32, as he pointed at empty seats of the hospital's COVID-19 ward. "Just look at this. This is much calmer than Ribeirao Preto and the entire region. The vaccine is no cure, but it is the solution to transform this into a light flu so people can carry on."

That doesn't mean Serrana is entirely rid of the virus. Some residents refused to get the shot. Others skipped the second dose or got infected before the vaccine took full effect. A few had prior diseases that prevented them from getting the vaccines.

Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly cast doubt on the shot's efficacy. He said last year his administration wouldn't buy the Chinese vaccine and that he wouldn't let Brazilians become "guinea pigs.″ His health ministry signed a deal to buy tens of millions of doses only after Brazil's health regulator approved the shot in January.

Had the government acted sooner, Brazil could have had twice as many Sinovac vaccines by now — 100 million doses, Butantan's head, Dimas Covas, told a congressional inquiry last week. The shot accounts for half the vaccines made available to date in the country.

Vaccines arrived too late for some of the 463,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in Brazil, which has the world's second-highest death toll.

The relative return to normal "could be happening all over Brazil if it were not for the delay in vaccinations," said João Doria, Sao Paulo's governor and an adversary of Bolsonaro. "These results show there's only one way to control the pandemic: vaccines, vaccines, vaccines."

Bolsonaro-fueled skepticism of Sinovac's shot reached Serrana. It didn't help that Sao Paulo state's release of efficacy data was confusing, with Doria initially claiming 78% protection against mild cases on Jan. 7, then revising that five days later to 50.4%, barely above the level required by health authorities.

Carmen da Silva Cunha, 81, has lost friends to the virus, and she got vaccinated despite "a lot of people trying to get into my head regarding the vaccine."

"Serrana got better, but it could be much more if a lot of people had taken their second shot," she said in an interview at the hospital, where she sought treatment for a sore throat. She tested negative for COVID-19, and doctors expected her to return home in short order.

Mayor Leo Capitanelli is pleased with results. Standing beside a health screening station on the road into the city, he said people have had only mild and moderate COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. And he boasted about Serrana's plan to host a music festival for about 5,000 spectators, all vaccinated with Sinovac's shot.

"This project brought our pride back," he said. "And it will bring hope for a fresh start next year."

Newsweek, in partnership with NewsGuard, is dedicated to providing accurate and verifiable vaccine and health information. With NewsGuard's HealthGuard browser extension, users can verify if a website is a trustworthy source of health information. Visit the Newsweek VaxFacts website to learn more and to download the HealthGuard browser extension.

a woman holding a cell phone: A healthcare worker administers a dose of Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac vaccine to an elderly woman at a mall theatre converted into a vaccination centre on June 1, 2021 in San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines. A trial of one Sinovac vaccine helped a Brazilian city lower death rates by 95%. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images A healthcare worker administers a dose of Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac vaccine to an elderly woman at a mall theatre converted into a vaccination centre on June 1, 2021 in San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines. A trial of one Sinovac vaccine helped a Brazilian city lower death rates by 95%. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

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