COVID still devastating in the Americas, health agency says

BRASILIA (Reuters) -COVID-19 continues to inflict a devastating toll on the Americas, with Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and Paraguay among the countries with the world’s highest weekly death rates, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

Cases have more than doubled in the United States over the past week, mainly among unvaccinated people, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a briefing.

The more transmissible Delta variant of coronavirus has been detected in 20 of the 35 countries in the Americas already, she said.

Cuba is seeing higher COVID infection and death rates than at any other point in the pandemic there, she said, adding that more than 7,000 minors and nearly 400 pregnant women have tested positive there in the last week.

Over the last week there were over 1.26 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 29,000 deaths reported in the Americas.

Infection hotspots have been reported in Argentine provinces bordering Bolivia and Chile, and in Colombia’s Amazon region.

“As COVID continues to circulate, too many places have relaxed the public health and social measures that have proven effective against this virus,” Etienne said.

So far, only 16.6% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as countries in the regions have yet to access the vaccines needed to keep their people safe, she said.

“The good news is that vaccines work against the variants, including Delta, in terms of preventing severe disease and death. The bad news is that we do not have yet enough vaccines to stop community transmission,” Etienne said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Argentina urges people to ‘save water’ with Parana river at 77-year low

By Maximilian Heath

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentina’s government has urged citizens to limit water use in a bid to alleviate pressure on the Parana River, a key grains thoroughfare that is at a 77-year low, a situation which is hampering shipments of cereals including soy and wheat.

A government advisory group called on people to “save water,” store rainwater for irrigation and avoid burning waste to prevent wildfires on the wetlands around the river delta.

“Water levels in the Parana are at the lowest level since 1944, which requires a commitment from everyone to attend and act preventively and responsibly against this situation,” the group said in a statement late on Monday.

The Parana, which has its source in southern Brazil, flows through Argentina to the coast near Buenos Aires. It is the transportation route for 80% of country’s farm exports and a source of drinking water, irrigation and energy.

However, due to a prolonged shortage of rainfall in Brazil, the Parana’s water levels have dropped dramatically, hitting the amount of cargo that can be carried by ships at the peak of the Argentine corn and soy export season.

On Saturday, the government announced a $10.4 million relief fund to mitigate the impact of low water levels.

On the banks of the Parana are important cities such as Rosario, Parana and Santa Fe. Rosario is the main agro-industrial hub and river port of Argentina, a leading global supplier of soy, corn and wheat to global markets.

(Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Editing by Adam Jourdan and David Evans)

Brazilian drugmaker completes first batch of Russian COVID-19 vaccine

By Leonardo Benassatto

GUARULHOS, Brazil (Reuters) -Brazilian pharmaceutical company União Quimica completed production of its first batch of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine with active ingredients and technology supplied by Russia, the company said on Thursday.

The vaccine will be exported to neighboring countries in South America, since Brazil has not yet approved the Russian shot for domestic use.

Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, said it had seen to quality control of the vaccine ingredients, which were put into vials and packaged for shipping – a process known as fill and finish – at the União Quimica plant in Guarulhos, just outside the city of São Paulo.

The factory’s first batch of 100,000 doses were packed into boxes labeled in Spanish, although the countries receiving them have not been decided yet by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), executives said.

Fernando Marques, chief executive of the family-owned firm, said Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina are interested in buying the vaccine. União Quimica will have a capacity for 8 million doses a month, when Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa approves its use in Brazil, he told Reuters.

Anvisa approval has been delayed after the agency took issue with some documents and missing trial data that the RDIF, which is marketing the shot, has been asked to provide.

Marques hopes approval will be given by June and his company will start producing the active ingredient at its biomedical lab in Brasilia instead of importing it from Russia.

RDIF said it has signed production contracts for Sputnik V with 20 manufacturing sites in India, Argentina, South Korea, China, Italy, Serbia, Egypt, Turkey, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

So far, the vaccine has already been produced in Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Egypt and Argentina, where the first test batch was produced on April 20 by Laboratorios Richmond, RDIF said.

(Reporting by Leonardo Benassatto and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Argentina’s gravediggers plead for vaccines as death toll climbs

By Miguel Lo Bianco and Agustin Geist

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Ernesto Fabián Aguirre, a gravedigger in the Memorial cemetery in the suburbs of Argentine capital Buenos Aires, feels like he is going into battle every day as the country’s coronavirus death toll mounts amid a new wave of infections.

Argentina’s gravediggers are threatening to strike over demands that cemetery workers burying the dead are vaccinated against COVID-19, a test for the South American country’s government which has faced hold-ups to its vaccine roll-out.

“We face a daily war in this place,” Aguirre told Reuters. “The fear is real, that’s why we want the vaccine to arrive for everyone so that, at least, we can live a couple more years,” he said with a wry laugh.

Argentina is seeing a sharp second wave of the pandemic, with the average daily death toll hitting a record at over 450 lives lost a day. The country has recorded over 70,000 deaths since the pandemic hit. Daily new cases now average just below 25,000, prompting calls for tighter restrictions.

Meanwhile the country’s inoculation campaign has only fully inoculated 4.5% of the population and 18% has received at least one dose, according to a Reuters analysis. At an average of 132,000 doses given per day, it will take another 69 days to inoculate another 10% of the population.

Argentina’s union representing cemetery, crematorium and funeral workers has threatened a national strike if it does not reach a deal with the government on vaccines. The strike could start this week after a government-enforced conciliation period ends.

The burial protocol for COVID-19 victims involves disinfecting and handling the coffin, where workers have to wear protective gear including body suits, face masks, goggles and gloves.

“It is a very hard work every day and I would like if it could be possible for us to be vaccinated because each day we have to take good care of ourselves and the COVID-19 issue is raging,” said Juan Polig, the cemetery’s manager.

Polig explained that beyond the physical risk of infection, workers had to deal with the emotional pain of consoling relatives and having to restrict how many family members can visit the grave due to COVID protocol measures.

“It’s hugely sad and complicated,” he said.

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco and Agustín Geist; Writing by Eliana Raszewski; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Lisa Shumaker)

Argentine farm tensions build over government beef export ban

By Nicolás Misculin

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentine farm groups will halt trading of livestock in protest against a 30-day government ban on beef exports aimed at bringing down domestic prices, the country’s main producer groups said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

The South American country’s center-left Peronist government unveiled the ’emergency measure’ to tamp down high inflation on Monday, putting it on a potential collision course with the powerful farm sector that drives exports.

The country’s four main rural associations said in a statement they would launch a nine-day halt in livestock trading starting on Thursday in protest and could take further measures.

“The path and the decisions that the executive branch is taking are deeply wrong,” Jorge Chemes, president of the Argentine Rural Confederations (CRA), one of the four farm associations that launched the protest, told a press conference.

“This is the beginning of a raft of measures.”

The standoff underscores the fragile balance the government needs to strike between supporting farm exports that bring in much-needed foreign currency and bringing down damaging runaway inflation that is set to near 50% this year.

The tension also reflects mounting global concerns about rising food prices that have seen other countries move to control exports too, including top wheat producer Russia which has imposed an tax on exports of the grain.

The farm sector, dominated by grains including soy and wheat, has a history of clashes with Peronist governments over tax hikes and export caps, including with former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is now Vice President.

CHINA EXPORTS

Argentina is the world’s no. 5 beef exporter and has been increasing sales to markets like China, which has bolstered the country’s ranchers but stoked fears about inflation, especially with poverty levels soaring amid a long recession.

The country exported some 897,500 tonnes of beef in 2020 worth around $2.7 billion, official data show. Over half of that went to China. In March shipments to China rose 8.3% year-on-year to $225.8 million, according to statistics from the Institute for the Promotion of Argentine Beef.

President Alberto Fernandez has in recent weeks criticized rising local beef prices and pointed to profit making by exporters who can charge higher prices to overseas buyers.

Omar Perotti, the governor of important farming province Santa Fe and part of the ruling coalition, said that the export ban was not the way forward and that it could harm the sector.

“The solution is to increase production and not close exports,” he wrote on Twitter. “We have the conditions to supply the internal and external market, maintaining the possibility of exporting our products to the world.”

Shares in Brazilian meatpackers Marfrig and Minerva slid on Tuesday after their operations in Argentina were hit by the ban.

Argentina is famed for its cattle ranches and sizzling cuts of steak, which are a central part of the local social fabric, with many gatherings of families and friends held around the “parrilla” barbecue grill at the weekend.

However, rising meat costs have come under fierce scrutiny in recent months. Some consumers – already hit hard by three straight years of recession – say they are no longer able to afford beef. Inflation has sapped growth and spending power.

(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Writing by Adam JourdanEditing by Alexandra Hudson)

‘Want the COVID-19 vaccine? Have a U.S. visa?’ Latinos travel north for the shot

By Anthony Esposito, Cassandra Garrison and Marco Aquino

MEXICO CITY/LIMA (Reuters) – “Want the COVID-19 vaccine? Have a U.S. visa? Contact us,” reads a travel agency advertisement, offering deals to Mexicans to fly to the United States to get inoculated.

From Mexico to far-flung Argentina, thousands of Latin Americans are booking flights to the United States to take advantage of one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, as rollouts in their own countries sputter.

Latin America is one of the regions worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the death toll set to pass 1 million this month, and many do not want to wait any longer for their turn to get vaccinated.

Some people are going it alone, while others have tapped travel agencies, which have responded by offering packages that arrange the vaccine appointment, flights, hotel stay and even offer extras such as city and shopping tours.

Gloria Sanchez, 66, and her husband, Angel Menendez 69, traveled in late April to Las Vegas to get Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccine.

“We don’t trust the public health services in this country,” said Sanchez, now back in Mexico. “If we hadn’t traveled to the United States where I felt a little more comfortable I wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated here.”

A travel agent in Mexico City organized the trip for them and an associate in Las Vegas handled things on the U.S. side, Sanchez said.

The U.S.-based associate signed them up for a vaccine appointment, then drove them to a Las Vegas convention center where they presented their Mexican passports and received their shots.

“We decided to make it a vacation and we went for a whole week, walked like crazy, ate really expensive but good food, and did some shopping,” said Sanchez.

As demand has boomed, flight prices from Mexico to the United States have risen an average of 30%-40% since mid-March, said Rey Sanchez, who runs travel agency RSC Travel World.

“There are thousands of Mexicans and thousands of Latin Americans who have gone to the United States to get vaccinated,” he said, adding that the top destinations have been Houston, Dallas, Miami and Las Vegas.

Reuters was unable to find official data on how many Latin Americans are traveling to the United States to get vaccinated. Travelers do not generally state vaccination as a reason to travel.

But U.S. cities have caught on to the trend, which is ushering much needed business into cash-strapped hotels, restaurants and other service activities.

“Welcome to New York, your vaccine is waiting for you! We’ll administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at iconic sites across our city,” New York City’s government announced on Twitter on May 6.

The U.S. embassy in Peru recently advised residents on Twitter that travelers could visit the United States for medical treatment, including vaccinations.

Latin Americans who had traveled on a U.S. tourist visa that Reuters spoke to said they were able to obtain shots with IDs from their home countries.

As far south as Argentina, travel agencies are selling vaccination tourism trips.

An advertisement in Buenos Aires details the estimated cost of getting vaccinated in Miami: air ticket $2,000, hotel for a week $550, food $350, car rental $500, vaccine $0. For a total of $3,400.

NO HOPE OF A VACCINE SOON

While initially it was mostly wealthy Latin Americans looking to travel, increasingly people with more modest means are making bookings. For many, the cost of lengthy flights makes it a major undertaking.

“I’m getting money together to travel to California in June,” said a worker at a car parts store in Lima, who asked not to be named for fear it could jeopardize his travel plans. “Considering how things are going here, there’s no hope of a vaccine shot soon.”

The slow rollout of vaccinations in most Latin American countries was a common reason cited for traveling to the United States, said Sanchez.

With little to no infrastructure to make vaccines domestically, campaigns in Latin America have been hampered by supply delays and shortages. The United States has administered nearly 262 million vaccine doses, some 2.3 times the number of shots given in all of Latin America, which has roughly twice the population, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Our World in Data.

Distrust in vaccination campaigns in Latin America is also a factor, said Sanchez.

Reports of batches of fake doses being seized by authorities or the required second dose not being available when it was time are some of the reasons Latin Americans gave for their distrust.

Vaccine tourism has fueled a jump in air travel to the United States, with fares for some last-minute flights doubling or even tripling since January, even as airlines increase capacity, according to Rene Armas Maes, commercial vice president at MIDAS Aviation, a London-based consultancy.

LATAM Airlines Group, the region’s largest carrier, said on Thursday it was seeing increased demand from South Americans seeking to travel to the United States to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Aeromexico said passenger traffic between Mexico and the United States increased 35% from March to April.

And American Airlines also said it had seen demand growing rapidly from parts of Latin America in recent months and it had increased capacity, particularly to Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico.

“We’re matching the increased demand in many of these markets, with additional frequencies, new routes or with the use of widebody aircraft, resulting in more capacity,” said American Airlines.

For 29-year-old Giuliana Colameo, the chance to get vaccinated was a relief after she and her boyfriend in Mexico City were both infected by the coronavirus in 2020.

They traveled to New York City where they got vaccinated at a pharmacy last month. She said they were the only two people getting the shots.

“When they give you the vaccine it’s like you almost cry. It’s a relief: it gives you hope,” said Colameo. “I feel very happy I did it and hopefully more people can do it.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City and Marco Aquino in Lima; Additional reporting by Carolina Mandl in Sao Paulo and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

In Dominican Republic, proposal to ease abortion ban polarizes nation

By Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) – As the abortion rights movement gains pace across Latin America, the issue is heating up in the Dominican Republic – one of the few countries in the region with a total ban on abortion – where activists were camped for an eighth day on Friday outside the president’s palace.

Latin America, where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries, has some of the most stringent abortion laws in the world. Argentina legalized the medical procedure in December and abortion rights activists hope it will give impetus to a regional movement.

In the Dominican Republic, a group of presidential advisors on Tuesday recommended a pending update of the country’s 19th century penal code – stalled since the end of the 1990’s over the issue – revise its stance.

The advisors recommended the code allow terminations when a woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is not viable or in cases of rape or incest – similar to the easing of abortion laws conservative Chile approved in 2017.

But the justice commission of the chamber of deputies rejected that on Wednesday, proposing instead that the penal code allow abortion only where the mother’s life is threatened.

Although the proposal is not yet scheduled for debate, it has sparked the ire both of religious groups that want to maintain the total ban and abortion rights activists who say abortion should be allowed in all three circumstances proposed by the presidential advisers.

Without change, abortion rights activists say, women will simply continue resorting instead to dangerous clandestine abortions that account for 13 percent of maternal deaths in the Caribbean country.

“We are the women dying, we are the women in danger,” said Margarita Mercedes, one of the dozens of activists that set up camp seven days ago outside the national palace in downtown Santo Domingo.

Their protest comes ahead of a march some Christian and civil society groups plan on holding in the capital on March 27 to show support for upholding the absolute ban on abortion.

“All three instances (in which the advisors suggested allowing abortion) are murder,” the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Francisco Ozoria, said on Thursday. “If they approve any one of them, whichever it is, it’s a murder.”

Christian groups already once thwarted an attempt to ease the country’s abortion ban, when they won a case at the Supreme Court challenging a new penal code approved by Congress in 2014 on the basis of errors in legal proceedings.

The update to the penal code was subsequently withdrawn and the debate over abortion died down – until now.

(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo; Writing by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Support for abortion jumped in Mexico last year, survey finds

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Support for abortion rose sharply in Mexico in 2020, according to a poll published on Monday, as attitudes towards the issue shift across Latin America.

In Mexico, a majority Roman Catholic nation, elective abortion is allowed only in the capital and the state of Oaxaca, but a growing pro-choice movement has been calling for a loosening of restrictions.

At the end of November, support for abortion stood at 48% in a survey, published by the news organizations El Financiero and Nación321 – a steep rise from the 29% recorded in March.

The poll, based on telephone interviews with 410 participants, asked if respondents agreed that “the law should permit a woman the right to abortion.”

Although Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, Argentina legalized the procedure last month.

The move was a triumph for the women’s rights movement in a region where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries.

Several nations in Latin American ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison.

Until recently, only Communist Cuba and tiny Uruguay permitted elective abortions.

In most of Mexico, abortion is banned except under certain circumstances, such as rape. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declined to take a position, saying wider legalization should be a matter for public consultation.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Argentina lower house approves landmark bill to legalize abortion

By Nicolás Misculin and Lucila Sigal

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina’s lower house of Congress approved a bill to legalize abortion in the early hours of Friday morning, a big step forward for the legislation that could set the tone for a wider shift in conservative Latin America.

The draft law, which would allow the legal termination of pregnancies up to the 14th week, was passed with 131 votes in favor, 117 against and six abstentions. It will now move up to the Senate, where an even tighter vote is expected.

Supporters of the legislation, dressed in distinctive green scarves, cheered and hugged each other in the streets of Buenos Aires after the vote for the bill, which was backed by the government.

Some of the opponents – who had also marched outside Congress through a mammoth debate on Thursday and stayed out all night for the decision – were in tears.

The votes in Argentina, the birthplace of Pope Francis, come amid calls for greater reproductive rights for women across the predominantly Roman Catholic region.

“This is a fundamental step and recognition of a long struggle that women’s movements have been carrying out in our country for years,” Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, the government’s Women, Gender and Diversity minister, said after the vote.

“We are going to continue working so that the voluntary termination of pregnancy becomes law.”

A similar vote to legalize abortion was narrowly defeated in a Senate vote in 2018 after passing the lower house.

Groups opposing the legislation wore light blue scarves as they marched.

“They don’t want to show what an abortion is,” said Mariana Ledger who was holding a cross and a dummy of a headless and bloodied fetus. “This is it, and they don’t want to show it. They are hiding the truth, we are not foolish people.”

Amnesty International welcomed the lower house vote and called on the Senate not to “turn its back” on women.

The initiative includes a parallel bill – which will face a separate vote – to assist women who want to continue with their pregnancy and face severe economic or social difficulties.

Argentine law currently only allows abortions when there is a serious risk to the mother or in the event of rape. Activists say, even in those cases, many women often do not receive adequate care.

Carlina Ciak, a 46-year-old pediatrician who stayed in the square outside Congress until after midnight, said the bill would help women from the most vulnerable groups who were often forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions.

“Abortion as a medical practice exists, even when illegal it never stopped being performed,” the mother-of-two said.

The most affected women were from groups already suffering from “misery, poverty, criminalization and all kinds of violence.”

“For them, and for our daughters, we will fight until it becomes law,” she said.

(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Additional reporting by Reuters TV and Lucila Sigal; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Tom Brown and Andrew Heavens)

Peru, with world’s deadliest outbreak, readies to start vaccine tests

By Marco Aquino

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru will start testing coronavirus vaccines from China’s Sinopharm and U.S. drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in September, researchers said, which should help the country gain faster access to inoculations once the vaccines are approved.

Sinopharm began this week to recruit up to 6,000 volunteers in Peru, which Reuters data indicates has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in relation to its population size. A team of Chinese scientists is expected to arrive in the Andean nation next week to work with local researchers, said Germán Málaga, a doctor and lead vaccine investigator at Lima’s Cayetano Heredia University.

“This is going to happen around Sept. 3, to begin vaccinations on Sept. 8,” he said. Sinopharm’s clinical trials in Peru are being done with Cayetano Heredia and the state-run Universidad Mayor de San Marcos.

Peru has recorded around 622,000 cases of the coronavirus, the fifth highest case load in the world, and 28,277 deaths. It now has the world’s deadliest fatality rate per capita, with 86.67 deaths per 100,000 people, a Reuters tally shows, just ahead of Belgium.

Sinopharm will also do clinical coronavirus vaccine trials elsewhere in Latin America, including in Argentina.

Other Chinese laboratories that will be conducting trials in the region include Sinovac Biotech, which will work in Brazil and Chile, and Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd and CanSino Biologics Inc, which will test in Mexico, authorities have said.

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will start tests with some 4,000 volunteers in Peru around Sept. 24, Prime Minister Walter Martos told reporters on Thursday.

“We are contacting other companies, laboratories, from Britain and other countries that are going to help us immunize at least 70% of the local population,” Martos said.

J&J said earlier this week that it would conduct Phase III trials for its vaccine in Chile, Argentina and Peru.

Peru, a country of nearly 33 million people and the world’s no. 2 copper producer, has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, both in terms of infections and economic impact. The economy crumbled over 30% in the second quarter of the year.

The death toll could also be higher than official figures suggest. A national registry shows that between April and August there were 68,192 more deaths compared to the same period in 2019. Excess deaths often give a better indication of the true number of fatalities.

Researcher Málaga and Carlos Castillo, the chief adviser for immunizations and vaccines at Peru’s health ministry, said that carrying out clinical trials would help Peru get faster access to vaccines when they were ready.

“There is an unwritten agreement, in the sense that in the country where a clinical trial is being carried out, it has priority access to vaccine availability,” Castillo said.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Reuters TV; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)