Just one COVID-19 patient was in critical condition at the Dr Geraldo Cesar Reis clinic in Serrana, a city of almost 46,000 in Sao Paulo state’s countryside. The 63-year-old woman rejected the vaccine that was offered to every adult resident of Serrana as part of a trial.
Doctors have said the woman was awaiting one of Pfizer’s shots, which remain scarce in Brazil.
However, she is an outlier there. Most adults rolled up their sleeves when offered the vaccine made by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, and the experiment has transformed the community into an oasis of near normalcy in a country where many communities continue to suffer.
Doctors who treated COVID-19 in Serrana have seen their patient loads evaporate. They now help colleagues with other diseases and have started eating lunch at home.
Life has returned to the streets: Neighbors chat and families have weekend barbecues. Outsiders who previously had no reason to set foot in Serrana are arriving for haircuts and restaurant outings.
“We’re now as full as we used to be,” Rogerio Silva, a staffer at a store for 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.”
The success story emerged as other population centers keep struggling with the coronavirus, enduring rising infections and new government-imposed restrictions.
Meanwhile, the vaccine appeared headed for wider use.
The WHO on Tuesday granted emergency use authorization to the Sinovac shot for people 18 or over, the second such authorization it has granted to a Chinese company.
The experiment known as “Project S” lasted four months and tested the Sinovac shot in real-world conditions.
The preliminary results made public on Monday suggest that the pandemic can be controlled if three-quarters of the population is fully vaccinated with Sinovac, said Ricardo Palacios, a director at the state’s Butantan Institute and coordinator of the study, which was not peer-reviewed.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 likewise 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 on 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.
Serrana saw vast improvements: Deaths fell by 95 percent, hospitalizations by 86 percent and symptomatic cases by 80 percent.
The project “shows the protection exists and that the vaccine is effective. No doubt,” said Gonzalo Vecina, one of the founders of Brazil’s health regulator and a medical school professor.
The spread of the virus in Serrana slowed while neighboring communities, such as Ribeirao Preto, just 19km west, saw COVID-19 cases surge. The upswing was largely blamed on more contagious variants.
Hospitals in Ribeirao Preto are so full of COVID-19 patients that the mayor last week imposed strict shutdown measures, including halting public transportation and limiting hours for the city’s 700,000 residents to buy groceries.
Some would wait months for their vaccines. Almost all shops are closed, and 95 percent of intensive care unit beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Just months ago, it was Serrana struggling to cope, said Joao Antonio Madalosso Jr, a physician.
For every patient who recovered in the first three months of this year, 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 the 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.”
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