Bolsonaro Government “Refused Rival Covid Vaccines”

By Nathalia Urban

The Bolsonaro government refused to buy various available vaccines against COVID-19, according an article published by Revista Piauí.  The federal government received three offers from the instituto Butantan, the main biological research center and vaccine producer in Brazil, located in São Paulo.  Butantan never received a response to the offer to supply the government with CoronaVac, the vaccine produced in partnership with Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac.  The first offer, made on July 30, through letter 160/2020, stated that the institute was able to supply “60 million doses of the vaccine from the last quarter of 2020”. They sent a second letter, under the number 177/2020, in which the Institute reaffirmed the proposal. It promised to supply 45 million doses in December and 15 million in the first quarter of 2021, at a cost of 21.50 reais per dose.  The correspondence, signed by the director of Butantan, Dimas Covas, was addressed to the Minister of Health, General Eduardo Pazuello. 

Butantan never received a response to these offers.

Butantan decided to try again, and sent another letter to the Ministry of Health in October.  It was more emphatic than the previous ones.  The institute director, recalled the offers that had not been answered and warned that there was a great demand for CoronaVac in the world market and, also, between Brazilian states and municipalities.  He clarified that the vaccine was “at a more advanced stage for administration in the population and with a schedule for delivery of large volumes as of January 2021”, and requested a response from the ministry “as soon as possible.” 

Dimas Covas himself handed over the third letter to General Pazuello, who was frowning, but said nothing.  Almost two weeks later, finally, the Ministry of Health sent a letter to Butantan addressing the intention to buy 46 million doses of CoronaVac, but Bolsonaro soon gave orders to suspend everything and publicly guaranteed that he would not buy any dose of “Doria’s Chinese vaccine ” making a reference to the governor of São Paulo, João Dória.

Though this may seem like merely bad management, or even sinophobia from Bolsonaro government, but Pfizer also complained that their 2020 efforts to offer the Brazilian government their own vaccine were flatly ignored. CoronaVac appeared to be obstructed by the Bolsonaro government at several stages of its trials and approval.

Freedom of information requests published here on Brasil Wire showed that Astrazeneca had lobbied Bolsonaro during the 2018 presidential campaign, instigated by the British Foreign and Commonwealth office. To date, the Astrazeneca vaccine remains the only major vaccine that has not been either ignored or nominally attacked by Bolsonaro.

According to data from the Integrated Financial Administration System (Siaf), obtained by the NGO Contas Abertas, AstraZeneca UK received R$ 991.5 million from the Federal Government. As for Astrazeneca do Brasil, R$ 17.1 million was paid.  The estimated expenditure for the production of 100.4 million doses is R $ 2 billion, according to the contract with Fiocruz.

Since January 1, several vaccines, including CoronaVac and Pfizer, have begun to be approved for emergency use, and vaccine rollout has begun. State governments have fought the federal government over their own programmes, and the state of Bahia is now set to receive up to 70 million doses of the Russian vaccine.

It remains unclear why Astrazeneca/Oxford remained the Bolsonaro federal government’s preferred choice, and indeed their only vaccine procured, for so long into the pandemic. The government maintained this position even when other solutions were available and tested in the country.