CAJICA, Colombia – Latin American countries are rushing to sign deals to gain access to SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, with Brazil, the largest in the region, right in the race. Already, the country has the third most COVID-19 cases globally, behind only India and the U.S.

With more than 4.3 million cases of COVID-19, Brazil is a major center for pharma companies seeking to test their drugs and vaccines. The country, which has a federal system of government and is currently headed by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, is betting on the Oxford vaccine, under development by Astrazeneca plc, of Cambridge, U.K., together with the University of Oxford.

“We estimate, from discussions and what we know so far, that the first batches of the vaccine will be available to our people from January 2021,” said General Eduardo Pazuello, the latest in a string of three ministers of health Brazil has appointed during the pandemic.

The federal government has issued a decree to provide about $360 million to source the Oxford vaccine, 100 million doses of which the government already reserved with Astrazeneca, if the company sees successful results in its phase III clinical trials.

The deal with Astrazeneca also has a tech-transfer provision, allowing the vaccine to be locally produced by Bio-Manguinhos, the production arm of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, from Rio de Janeiro.

However, even as the central government makes plans to immunize the country's population with the British vaccine, a group of nine of the country’s 26 states, known as the Northeast Consortium, is racing to deploy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine first. That group is organized under the leadership of Bahia, a state governed by left-wing governors who oppose Bolsonaro.

“Bahia has a state plant which is called Bahiafarma, which will be responsible for the distribution. But Bahiafarma will not be producing it, because its production capacity is very limited,” Eugênio Aragão told BioWorld. Aragão served as the minister of justice of Brazil during President Dilma Roussef´s term, up until the then-president was impeached. He is an active member of an opposition party, the Workers’ Party, which he now advises.

Aragão connected the governments of Bahia and Russia on the Sputnik V project, a vaccine conditionally licensed in Russia on Aug. 11, though not without controversy. Together, they’ve established an agreement that would make the vaccine available to the nine states in the Northeast Consortium as early as possible.

“The deal with Russia has nothing to do with ideology, but much more with the synergy between the governments of the northeast,” he said. “We have to work together at a state government level, because we cannot rely on the central government, unfortunately, and therefore Russia was the best solution,” he added.

However, the left-wing governed states of Bahia, Sergipe, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Maranhão, Ceará and Alagoas are not the only ones seeking the Russian vaccine. In the south of the country, the state of Paraná also signed a parallel manufacturing and distribution agreement with the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology of Moscow, the organization responsible for delivering the Sputnik V vaccine to the world.

“Representatives from Russia have presented us with the results of the COVID-19 vaccine tests. Now let's move to phase III! All studies are being carefully monitored by the Ministry of Health, Tecpar and Anvisa,” said Carlos Massa, the governor of the state of Paraná, in a post to Twitter on Sept. 11. Tecpar is Paraná’s state technology institute and Anvisa the country´s health surveillance agency.

“Paraná, which is governed by a right-wing government, has made the same deal with the Russians, but they are going to produce the vaccine separately from Bahia. They are going to produce it in Curitiba,” Aragão explained.

The former minister of justice is confident that the Russian vaccine will win the race against the federal government-sponsored choice and be the first vaccine to become available in Brazil.

Phase III trials are set to start in Bahia as early as October. However, despite the project’s intention of only having 500 volunteers, Aragão said he believes that Anvisa will require at least 10 times that number of participants for phase III trials.

“The whole thing would normally take one year, but perhaps we can do it in one or two months. In March or April, we should be able to use this vaccine,” he explained.

The goal of the Northeast Consortium governments is to have 50 million people vaccinated with 100 million doses, as the Sputnik V is a dual-shot vaccine. The origin of the funding required to deliver the vaccine to the population is still not clear.

“We have to at least cover the costs, Gamaleya will, to a degree, merchandise it. This vaccine could cost about $50 dollars for the two doses,” said Aragão.

Aragão said he believes that the BRICS trade bloc, of which Brazil and Russia are partners, could help support the funding of the vaccination campaign in the Latin American country.

“There is the BRICS bank, the New Development Bank (NDB). It may be possible that it could finance part of these vaccines,” the former minister said.