With Chile vaccinating more than 25 percent of its people with at least one shot, the country of 19 million on South America’s Pacific coast is the champion of Latin America, and globally it is just behind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
That’s a far cry from the beginning of the pandemic, when Chile was criticized over its inability to trace and isolate infected people.
Government officials and health experts say it was the country’s early negotiations with vaccine producers, as well as its past experience with robust vaccination programs, a record praised by the World Health Organization.
During the first months of the pandemic, the headlines in Chile were bleak, with the country’s intensive care units almost full and the government unable to control the virus’s spread despite restrictions that included mandatory lockdowns.
But another story was developing in parallel that few people knew about, one that had begun months before and would later guarantee Chile fast access to vaccines.
Andrés Couve, Chile’s minister of science, said that formal negotiations with vaccine-producing companies started last April, only a month after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic.
By May, Couve said, a team of experts and officials presented a plan to President Sebastián Piñera, including a road map about how to use the country’s network of trade agreements and its previous contacts with pharmaceutical companies to get vaccines once they were developed. Recommendations included being part of clinical trials.
This effort was helped by contacts made months earlier in China. In October 2019, Chilean biochemist Dr. Alexis Kalergis had traveled to Beijing with two Chilean colleagues for an international congress on immunology. There Kalergis met experts from the Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac Biotech Ltd.
Kalergis had already approached Sinovac about working on vaccine research. So when China announced in January 2020 that it had identified a new virus, and within weeks the world saw it spreading around the globe, Kalergis knew he needed to reach out to his colleagues at Sinovac.“Taking advantage of our experience, the contacts and the interest that we expressed … we started conversations with Sinovac,” said Kalergis, director of the Milenio Institute for Immunology and Immunotherapy at Chile’s Catholic University. SOVEREIGNPH