By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s health minister said on Wednesday that the country’s attempts to purchase thousands of ventilators from China to fight the coronavirus epidemic fell through and the government is now looking to Brazilian companies to build the devices.
“Practically all our purchases of equipment in China are not being confirmed,” Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said at a news conference.
An attempt to buy 15,000 ventilators in China failed and Brazil was making a new bid, he said, but the outcome is uncertain in the intense competition for medical supplies in the global pandemic.
Last week, Mandetta referred to being outbid for Chinese supplies and on Tuesday he noted “difficulties” in guaranteeing purchases.
In one positive sign for Brazil’s supply crunch, a private company said it managed to buy 40 tonnes of masks and test kits from China, with the shipment arriving by cargo plane in Brasilia on Wednesday.
The purchase of 6 million masks and other protective equipment worth 160 million reais ($30 million) was undertaken by pharmaceutical and hospital equipment company Nutriex, based in Goiania, 220 km (138 miles) east of Brasilia. The firm plans to donate part of the order to medical institutions.
Health authorities began to sound the alarm this week over supply shortages as hospitals faced growing numbers of patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in the country soared to 15,927 on Wednesday, with the death toll rising by 133 in just 24 hours to 800, the ministry said.
Rio de Janeiro reported the first deaths from coronavirus in the city’s hillside slums, called favelas, alarming authorities who fear rapid contagion in these crowded communities that have limited access to medical care and often lack running water for hygiene.
Two of the six deaths occurred in Rocinha, one of the largest slums in South America. The virus has spread to 10 of Rio’s favelas, potentially affecting 2 million people, the mayor’s office said.
Mandetta reported the first case of coronavirus among the Yanomami people on the country’s largest reservation for indigenous tribes and said the government plans to build a field hospital for tribes that are vulnerable to contagion.
“We are extremely concerned about the indigenous communities,” Mandetta said.
Anthropologists and health experts warn that the epidemic could have a devastating impact on Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people whose lifestyle in tribal villages rules out social distancing.
President Jair Bolsonaro said in an address to the nation that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was saving lives of coronavirus patients and should be used in the initial stages of COVID-19. Due to the absence of scientific evidence on its effectiveness and safety, Brazil’s health authorities limit its use to seriously ill patients who are in hospital.
Mandetta said Brazil has hired local unlisted medical equipment maker Magnamed to make 6,000 ventilators in 90 days.
Pulp and paper companies Suzano SA and Klabin SA, planemaker Embraer SA, information technology provider Positivo Tecnologia SA and automaker Fiat Chrysler have also offered to help build ventilators, he said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Christian Schmollinger)