As Brazil lost another 3,462 of its citizens to COVID-19 on Wednesday, a little-known city of 45,000 in the center of the country had a very different story to tell: Welcome to Serrana, believed to be the world's first city to be immunized against COVID-19.
Facing a highly contagious variant and poor public management, Brazil is currently the country worst-hit by the pandemic, accounting this month for one of every four COVID-19 deaths and a overall death toll above 360,000. But this town's entire population has been vaccinated against COVID and walks mask-free; its health workers only treating a small number of lingering coronavirus cases.
Located some 300 kilometers north of São Paulo, Serrana has been distributing to all its residents since February two doses of Sinovac, a Coronavirus vaccine developed in China, as part of "Project S," a Brazilian study. Researchers hope the project will help settle pressing questions about COVID-19 vaccines, such as: Can someone who is vaccinated still transmit the virus? Does the vaccine work against variants? What exactly is the efficacy of China's vaccine, given that even Chinese authorities have recently recognized its shortcomings?
More than 97% of the population is vaccinated.
Serrana was chosen for the study because it used to be a hard-hit community, though that would be hard to tell now. Vaccinations ended on April 11, with researchers vaccinating 97.7% of the target population. Infection rates have plummeted. So has the number of people turning up at hospitals with respiratory problems. According to O Globo's Valor Economico, it has been a week since anyone has been intubated.
The law still requires residents to wear masks and comply with social distancing, at least until the study's initial results are published, presumably in May. Yet impatience seems to spreading fast in Serrana, and many residents already act as if the pandemic is over. Estado de São Paulo reporters who visited the town saw several group gatherings and said many residents had ceased to wear masks.
Hope, too, seems contagious. Business owners who saw revenue drop by an average of 10% during the 2020 lockdown now appear relieved. They are joined by dozens of companies around Brazil who contacted local authorities hoping to set up a branch in Serrana. "The expectation is that businesses will be allowed to reopen this month, even if at 30% capacity," restaurant owner Ricardo Tadeu Lisi told Valor Economico. He said his revenues fell 70% in 2020, and he had to close down, renegotiate salaries and dismiss 14 employees — but now he hoped to reopen soon.
"It takes time to get back to normal, but we hope that 2021 will be a better year than 2020," he said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel."
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