Chile starts first COVID-19 vaccination campaign in South America as Pfizer doses arrive

A healthcare worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a swab from a woman for a rapid COVID-19 test, at a testing site which is temporarily on the coastal edge in a beach, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Vina del Mar, Chile, December 20, 2020. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile, the first country in South America to begin vaccinating against COVID-19, started innoculations on Thursday after receiving its initial 10,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNtech.

Specialist nurse Zulema Riquelme, 46, a 26-year veteran at the public hospital in a poor area of the capital, was the first Chilean to receive the vaccine.

She urged others to follow her lead, although a poll by local firm Cadem found only 36% were willing to receive the shot immediately and 22% said they would never want it.

"I understand that people are suspicious because it is something new, but you have to have faith and trust," she said.

Mexico received 3,000 doses of the vaccine on Wednesday; Costa Rica was to receive Pfizer doses on Thursday while Argentina was expecting the first doses of Russia’s Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine on the same day.

Chile's doses arrived at Santiago airport from Pfizer's manufacturing hub in Belgium, just before 7 a.m. local time (1000 GMT) on Christmas Eve, according to the presidency.

The consignment contained two small boxes each packed with 23 kg (50 pounds) of dry ice to keep them at the ultra-cold temperatures required, and 13 kg of vaccine-loaded syringes.

The boxes were transferred by police helicopter to a logistics centre in the capital.

Chile has vaccine deals with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sinovac and is part of the global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX. Chile's Health Minister Enrique Paris said he expected Pfizer to send 240,000 doses in January and the first batch of Sinovac vaccines after Jan. 20.

Authorities aim to inoculate 80% of Chile's 19 million people in the first half of next year.

The two-dose Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine was being given to hospital health workers in Santiago on Thursday and their counterparts in the southern provinces of Araucania, BioBio and Magallanes on Christmas Day.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)

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