Lionel Messi has helped to obtain 50,000 Covid vaccines from China for an ambitious but controversial plan to inoculate all of South America’s football players ahead of this summer’s Copa América tournament.

The deal with the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac was clinched after Messi donated three autographed sweatshirts. “Sinovac’s directors manifested their admiration for Lionel Messi, who kindly sent us three shirts for them,” tweeted the Conmebol official Gonzalo Belloso.

But the deal, brokered by Uruguay’s conservative president Luis Lacalle Pou, is being questioned in his country, which is dealing with the world’s most serious Covid levels. Uruguay has the highest number of new daily Covid cases in the world, 1084 per million inhabitants, compared with just 215 per million in the US and only 25 per million in the UK, and vaccines are scarce.

“Just as the president manifested cooperation with Conmebol to vaccinate for the Copa América, he could just as well have the same consideration for Canelones,” the mayor of the Uruguayan city of Canelones, Yamandú Orsi, said in statements to the press. Only 12.4% of his city’s population has been vaccinated so far.

Part of the 50,000 vaccines are going to Argentina’s 26 male first division teams. “The idea is to vaccinate all of Argentina’s first division teams,” said Bellos. “We want all football players to be inoculated before the Copa América because any of them could be called to play.”

But the Argentinian government, now considering a strong lockdown to deal with its own Covid tsunami, would first need to approve China’s Sinovac vaccine in order for Argentina’s players to be inoculated.

Vaccine scarcity is also a problem in Argentina, where no new vaccines have arrived since 4 April. The Covid #P1 variant has caused a wildfire spread in Argentina, with 477 daily new cases per million inhabitants, compared with only 335 in Brazil, where the variant originated.

Conmebol officials have said they are in negotiations with Argentina to obtain an exception for football players. Approached by the Guardian, an Argentinian presidential office spokesperson made no comment on the controversial vaccines.

Myriam Bregman, a politician of Argentina’s Frente de Izquierda leftist party, told the Guardian: “The Copa América does not seem to be a priority given the grave situation the region is going through, and the fact that they can obtain these vaccines privately is even more serious.”

The Copa América will be co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia from 13 June to 10 July after the 2020 championship was cancelled due to the pandemic.

This content first appear on the guardian

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