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Explained: A controversy in Brazil over buying vaccines from Bharat Biotech

In March, a Brazilian Health Ministry official, Luis Ricardo Miranda, informed President Bolsonaro about pressure being brought on him to buy Covaxin despite certain red flags that he had raised over purchasing a tranche of doses.

Written by Om Marathe | New Delhi |
Updated: June 29, 2021 8:07:38 am
“We didn't spend one cent on Covaxin. We didn't receive one dose of Covaxin. What sort of corruption is this?” Bolsonaro said.

A February deal to acquire 2 crore doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin for 1.6 billion reais (around Rs 2,400 crore) is roiling Brazil’s rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power in 2019 after running on an anti-graft agenda.

On Friday, two sensational testimonies by whistleblowers before a parliamentary panel blamed the President and his powerful coalition chief for agreeing to buy the Indian vaccine at a price that was allegedly higher than that of other options available in the market — that too, when it lacked local regulatory approval.

The panel, formed in April, is investigating Brazil’s tardy response to the pandemic, which has now claimed over 5.13 lakh lives in the country, a toll that is second to only that in the United States.

The alleged scandal has since dominated the Brazilian press, with major papers including the Folha de São Paulo, O Globo, and O Estado de S. Paulo carrying front-page stories over the weekend. The hashtag #CovaxinGate has also been trending on social media.

What is the ‘CovaxinGate’ controversy about?

In March, a Brazilian Health Ministry official, Luis Ricardo Miranda, informed President Bolsonaro about pressure being brought on him to buy Covaxin despite certain red flags that he had raised over purchasing a tranche of doses.

According to Miranda, who was one of the whistleblowers who appeared on Friday, the government received an invoice worth $45 million for 30 lakh doses of the vaccine from an entity that found no mention in the February deal.

Miranda said he was concerned because this firm, Singapore-based Madison Biotech, apparently gave the impression of being a shell company. The vaccines too had not arrived in Brazil, and neither had Covaxin received regulatory approval.

Miranda claimed that he began receiving phone calls from superiors putting “atypical, excessive” pressure on him to approve the payment.

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As allegations mounted, prosecutors opened an investigation, and the government cancelled the deal. The newspaper Estado de S. Paulo reported that although Bharat Biotech had initially quoted a price of $1.34 per dose, the Brazilian government had agreed to pay $15 per shot — after having ignored an offer from Pfizer in 2020 at a lower price.

Miranda then went to his brother Luis, a Brazilian lawmaker who is allied with Bolsonaro. On March 20, both Luis and Luis Ricardo Miranda met Bolsonaro.

The lawmaker Miranda, who was the other whistleblower to appear on Friday (he wore a bulletproof vest to the hearing), told the parliamentary panel, “The President looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is serious’,” adding, “’If I interfere with this thing, you know what kind of shit it’s going to stir up. This must be so-and-so’s deal.’”

After senators pressed him to reveal the identity of “so-and-so”, the lawmaker let on that the person was Roberto Barros, a key Bolsonaro ally who heads the government coalition in the lower house of Brazil’s Parliament.

According to a Reuters report, the coordinator of the parliamentary panel has called for protection for the Miranda brothers, as also for the owners of the Brazilian company Precisa Medicamentos, which acts as an intermediary for Bharat Biotech.

What has Bharat Biotech said?

In a statement that was reported by international news organisations, Bharat Biotech said, “We strongly refute and deny any kind of allegation or implication of any wrongdoing whatsoever with respect to the supply of COVAXIN.” The company also said that Madison Biotech was its global sales and marketing unit, Reuters reported.

Bharat Biotech was also quoted as having said earlier that its vaccine pricing has been in the band of $15-$20 per dose for foreign governments; the Brazil contract was in the same range. No vaccines had, however, been shipped because approvals and a formal purchase order were still pending, Reuters quoted Bharat Biotech as having said.

Brazil’s Health Ministry said in a statement on June 22 that it had not made any payment to Bharat Biotech, and that the matter was under legal review.

How can this impact Bolsonaro’s future?

Both Bolsonaro and Barros have denied wrongdoing, and the President has accused the Miranda brothers of a smear campaign. “We didn’t spend one cent on Covaxin. We didn’t receive one dose of Covaxin. What sort of corruption is this?” Bolsonaro said.

Experts, however, suggest that the controversy is bound to hurt Bolsonaro’s prospects, who is already being blamed for mismanaging the Covid crisis, and is lagging far behind leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in polls for elections next year.

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