Messi's shirts and Sinovac: The Covid-19 vaccine donation that aims to save Copa America

Conmebol Sinovac Messi Luis Lacalle GFX
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CONMEBOL became the first non-governmental body on the planet to receive vaccines in order to inoculate South America's footballers

Alongside the Bombonera and the Maracana, Montevideo's Estadio Centenario is one of South America's most iconic football homes.

The venue of the first-ever World Cup final back in 1930 and countless memorable Copa Libertadores and Copa America ties, playing at the Centenario for club or country is the dream of many a young Uruguayan hoping to break through in the professional game.

On Thursday, though, players and staff filed through its doors for a different purpose. Members of Boston River and Cerrito were the first to receive the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine in a scheme that aims to eventually include every football professional in the country and thousands across the South American continent in the coming weeks.

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“It is very important, it is a little step football is taking,” Cerrito forward Maxi Perez told Referi in the Centenario shortly after becoming one of the first to receive the jab.

“We are closing on the ideal scenario, which is that fans can return to football, and it will be good for all the clubs to take advantage.”

Similar scenes were witnessed in Paraguay, where Sportivo Luqueno's Aldo Vera became the first recipient of the jab on the same day, while several other nations are expected to begin their own roll-out in the near future.

South American governing body CONMEBOL was the recipient of an unprecedented donation of 50,000 vaccines from its China-based manufacturer, which has provided a significant percentage of the doses distributed in the region while companies such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca have struggled to keep up with demand.

It was the first such gift afforded to a non-governmental body on the planet – and involved a spot of soft diplomacy on the part of Lionel Messi, who sent three signed shirts to Sinovac to thank the company.

The deal was brokered largely by CONMEBOL chief Alejandro Dominguez, who documented every step of the process on his personal Twitter account, and President of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou.

At both national and continental level, games where teams have been missing up to 10 or even more players due to positive tests are commonplace, and huge disruption has been caused by restrictions.

Football was banned altogether in Brazil's Sao Paulo state until mid-April, while in Argentina all matches in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area must kick off prior to 6pm due to a curfew in the nation's most populous region. With the Southern Hemisphere winter still more than a month away, the feeling is that things will only get worse before they improve.

Everyone involved is desperate to avoid debacles like those experienced in the past week.

Eight Independiente players were forced to sleep on the floor in Bahia airport after being denied entry to Brazil, while Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada was confined to a Guayaquil hotel room for more than two days due to returning a positive test prior to his side's Libertadores clash against Ecuador's Barcelona.

In response, CONMEBOL has seemed to almost take on the form of a sovereign nation, engaging in international diplomacy directing vaccinations and attempting to override local restrictions. Brazil, in particular, appears to be on a collision course with the governing body.

The National Sanitary Vigilance Agency (ANVISA) signalled to UOL that, under local law, any donation of vaccines must be directed in its entirety to priority groups not yet covered as part of the National Immunisation Plan.

The perceived special treatment given to players at this critical time has not gone unnoticed.

Neuroscientist and Duke University lecturer Miguel Nicolelis was scathing about the scheme, telling UOL: “It is unbelievable, it's nonsense. Football thinks it is above any law and moral code. For those who don't like football, this is a kick to the stomach.”

Corinthians director of football Roberto de Andrade was also critical of the scheme, telling reporters in April: “You have people who need the vaccine more than athletes. I don't think jumping the queue is right, and football is not better than any other sector.”

“I think in the current situation of vaccines, particularly in Latin America, the idea of having preference for young football players over other people doesn't sound like a sound ethical decision to make,” Ernesto Resnik, an Argentine biotechnologist resident in Minnesota, United States, explained to Goal.

“It's not even really a complete necessity. On the other hand, I do understand that they are made to play and that the providers should then make sure they play in safe conditions.”

Aside from the moral concerns, there are logistical issues to be considered. Sinovac is approved in six of CONMEBOL's member nations, who turned to China for aid when other vaccines such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca failed to arrive.

However, in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, its use is not permitted, and in the case of the former, no exception will be made to allow its allotment of the donation to be applied.

Indeed, both River Plate and Lanus, who played in Paraguay on Thursday, refused the offer to vaccinate their staff and players ahead of their respective Libertadores and Sudamericana games, citing the impossibility of receiving the necessary second dose as the principal motive.

Another concern is the low effectiveness registered by Sinovac in recent studies. In one widely shared paper, the University of Chile found that the first dose prevented infection by just 3 per cent in the first fortnight after application, rising to 56.5% two weeks after receiving the second vaccine.

“The choice of the Sinovac vaccine is also curious," Resnik added. "In principle, it's one of the least effective. Though it's still good enough, the first dose is probably not enough. But who knows?

“I would agree with the view that it's a publicity stunt, that it's being done to show that CONMEBOL are doing something for the players.”

The principal objective, of course, is to prevent hospitalisation and fatalities from the virus, and on that account, as with all the vaccines in circulation, Sinovac drastically reduces those numbers.

But one fear is that players, who rarely suffer the worst effects of Covid, will be lulled into a false sense of security and drop precautions, ultimately making the donation useless or even counter-productive.

CONMEBOL's end goal would appear to be the safe and untroubled playing of the Copa America, which is scheduled to kick off next month in joint-host nations Argentina and Colombia.

The likes of Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will also be offered vaccines once they return to home soil ahead of the games for a double round of World Cup qualifiers before the Copa's beginning.

Covid, though, is not the only concern. Colombia has been struck by bloody protests in the past week over a tax reform opponents claim favours the wealthy, and police repression, which has claimed almost 40 lives and 'disappeared' close to 100 individuals to date.

Ivan Duque Colombia President GFX

Even in the midst of horrific scenes of violence, Colombia president Ivan Duque insists the Copa must go ahead.

“It would be absurd not to play a Copa America if the Euros go ahead, above all when the epidemiological figures in several countries are similar or even worse in some places,” the head of state claimed this week.

His Argentine counterpart, Alberto Fernandez, though, is more circumspect. “I do not want to ruin the show of the Copa America, but I want us to be very sensible and careful,” he explained in April.

“We have time ahead of us to evaluate and see how things evolve, to see how we can control this problem.”

Whether Colombia is ultimately able to carry through its hosting duties or not, the sense is that after missing out in 2020, this year the show must go on. 

Paraguay, site of the CONMEBOL headquarters and where several hastily rescheduled Libertadores and Sudamericana games involving Colombian teams were played on Thursday, has been mooted as a possible last-minute alternative should the protests and repression continue.

Whether fans will be allowed to attend or not – and all signs point to the latter – is of secondary consideration.

“Obviously, the big money for the Copa America and these tournaments is TV, and maybe they care a lot less about people in the stands. On those grounds I am sure they are going to play,” Resnik stated.

What the vaccines and Copa cannot hide, though, is a continent and football in chaos as the pandemic refuses to fade away at CONMEBOL's convenience.

The Sinovac donation is not enough; only proper coordination between teams and governing bodies and real commitment to health protocols will ensure the tournament goes off without a hitch – and these are elements that have been sorely lacking as South America suffers the ravages of its second wave.