Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday rejected the announced purchase of 46 million doses of a potential vaccine against the coronavirus being developed by a Chinese company and tested in a state governed by a political rival, prompting some to question if he was allowing politics to steer public health decisions.
“The Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig,” Bolsonaro said on his social media channels, adding that the vaccine has not yet completed testing, which is the case with all potential vaccines for the virus. “My decision is to not purchase such a vaccine.”
Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello had announced the purchase Tuesday in a meeting with Sao Paulo Gov. Joo Doria, a foe of Bolsonaro’s whose state is participating in the vaccine’s development through its Butantan Institute. The cost of the acquisition was estimated at $360 million.
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“Butantan’s vaccine will be Brazil’s vaccine,” Pazuello said.
A Brazilian Health Ministry document issued Monday and shared by Sao Paulo’s government Wednesday confirmed that the ministry had put in writing its intention to buy the doses of the “Butantan Vaccine-Sinovac/Covid-19” for an estimated price of $10.30 each.
The document made explicit the purchase was contingent upon the health regulator’s approval. Bolsonaro told journalists that protocol will be cancelled.
Claudio Couto, a political science professor at Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, felt the president’s move had little to do with the virus and was more a way to hurt Doria, who is widely cited as a likely challenger to Bolsonaro’s 2022 reelection bid.
“His concern is to be a strong candidate for reelection, and that often means giving trouble to his adversaries,” Couto said.
Bolsonaro and Doria have had an adversarial relationship since the start of the pandemic, with each taking opposite stances regarding stay-at-home recommendations and restrictions on activity. The governor, whose state is Brazil’s most populous, heeded the counsel of public health experts and adopted such measures, which the president blasted, arguing the economic fallout could kill more than the disease.
Brazil has confirmed more than 153,000 deaths from COVID-19, the second most in the world, behind only the U.S. The South American nation has also reported 5.2 million confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, the world’s third highest tally.
“It isn’t ideology, it isn’t politics, and it isn’t the electoral process that saves. It is the vaccine,” Doria told reporters in the national capital, Brasilia.
During a brief news conference in the Sao Paulo countryside, Bolsonaro shot back at Doria, accusing the governor of playing politics by hurrying out a vaccine in an effort to buoy his popularity. The president also accused his adversaries, including Doria, of “promoting a narrative of terrorism since the start of the pandemic.”
Brazil has a long tradition of immunization programs. The South American country has a struggling, but universal public health care system, that has been key to stopping outbreaks of measles, yellow fever and other diseases.
Bolsonaro has said no one will be forced to get a coronavirus vaccine. But his comments Wednesday reflected particular skepticism of the vaccine being developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac.
He has often expressed mistrust of the Asian power, which is Brazil’s biggest trading partner, particularly on the campaign trail in 2018. He called China “heartless” and said that under his watch it wouldn’t be allowed to buy up Brazil.
“THE CHINESE VACCINE OF JOO DORIA,” Bolsonaro wrote on social media Wednesday. “For my government, any vaccine, before it is made available to the population, must be PROVEN SCIENTIFICALLY.”
Despite that nod to scientific rigour, Bolsonaro for months touted the healing powers of hydroxychloroquine even as studies indicated the anti-malarial drug was ineffective against the coronavirus and caused harmful side effects.
In June, Brazil’s government announced a deal with Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to purchase 100 million doses of its potential coronavirus vaccine.
It has become common practice for governments to purchase doses of promising coronavirus vaccines, to build a stockpile in case they are proven effective. That investment is usually not refundable if the shot fails.
Earlier, the executive secretary of Brazil’s Health Ministry said in a televised statement that there had been a misunderstanding in the announcement about buying the CoronaVac vaccines.
“There is no intention to buy vaccines from China,” said Antonio Elcio Franco, who added there will be only “a Brazilian vaccine” made at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo. Those shots, however, would still be based upon Sinovac’s research.
At least two governors, including Flavio Dino in Maranhao state, said they would fight Bolsonaro’s administration if it refused authorization for a vaccine that works, whatever its provenance.
“We don’t want a new war,” said Dino, another adversary of the president. “Governors will go to Congress and to courts to ensure that the population has access to all vaccines that are efficient and safe. Health is a bigger asset than ideological or electoral disputes.”