Whilst the United States rushes to complete the vaccination of its own people, Brazil witnesses massive loss of life.
Reduced to pawns in the latest geopolitical game of the new cold war, Brazilians have been viewed by the United States as expendable, to prevent growth of Russian and Chinese diplomatic influence in Latin America. U.S. vaccines were withheld or offered on sovereignty threatening terms, whilst offers from Brazil’s BRICS partners were obstructed or blocked entirely under pressure from U.S. diplomats.
At the time of publication Brazil is horrific. Globally, now only Modi’s India, another far-right strategic partner of the United States, is worse. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy insists that it is insufficient to talk about government failure in the pandemic, and that they are witnessing a crime against humanity. Her words also ring true on Brazil.
As the situation eases in the United States, acceleration of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil is startling: From the first death to the hundred thousandth took 144 days. From 100k to 200k, 152 days. 200k to 300k, took 76 days.
Brazil’s savage toll went from 300k to 400k in just 36 days, making April 2021 one of the darkest months in the country’s history.
As Brazil faced this massive loss of life, the speed at which the population was being vaccinated against Covid-19 was decelerating due to shortages. In several states, people arrived for their second shot of the vaccine only to find that there are no doses available.
A new Senate Inquiry into the Bolsonaro regime’s handling of the pandemic was told that it rejected offers of vaccines on 11 occasions, needlessly delaying any national vaccination programme for months, potentially having cost hundreds of thousands of lives. With the subservient Bolsonaro opposing a worldwide call for the WTO to lift patents on Covid vaccines, Brazil’s Senate also just approved a bill in defiance of the president, which if passed by Congress will effectively break them unilaterally with compulsory licences. It will come too late for many.
Brazil’s catastrophic conditions are clearly rooted in the Federal Government’s wilful refusal of vaccines. This has occurred under documented U.S. pressure, not “alleged” pressure as State Department mouthpiece the New York Times recently framed it. In March, as Brazil’s situation became exponentially worse, a new component was discovered by journalist John McEvoy, specifically how the United States worked to convince the Brazilian government to refuse the Sputnik V vaccine, which it depicted as a “malign” tool of Russian soft power in Latin America.
Under the subheading “Combatting malign influences in the Americas”, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report announces:
“OGA used diplomatic relations in the Americas region to mitigate efforts by states, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia, who are working to increase their influence in the region to the detriment of US safety and security. OGA coordinated with other U.S. government agencies to strengthen diplomatic ties and offer technical and humanitarian assistance to dissuade countries in the region from accepting aid from these ill intentioned states. Examples include using OGA’s Health Attaché office to persuade Brazil to reject the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, and offering CDC technical assistance in lieu of Panama accepting an offer of Cuban doctors.”
Brazilian lives were seen by the United States as expendable in the fight to prevent growth of Russian diplomatic influence in South America.
The U.S. also sent Office of Global Affairs Health (OGA) Attachés to BRICS members China, India, South Africa, and to Mexico, a vaccine manufacturing hub for the hemisphere.
Pfizer and Sovereignty
U.S. pressure on Brazil to refuse Russias Sputnik V, the perverse obstruction of China-Brazil developed CoronaVac, and slow roll out of Oxford AstraZeneca, have led to panic procurement of the more expensive Pfizer vaccine.
Initially ignored by Brazil in 2020, the vaccine’s belated purchase is likely on frightening contractual terms. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that the U.S.-headquartered multinational was demanding shocking concessions from Latin American states it was negotiating with.
As collateral for any resulting legal penalties for unwanted side-effects of the vaccine on the population, Pfizer wanted sovereign assets, such as bank reserves, military bases, embassy buildings, even fishing rights.
In astonishing attempt at corporate blackmail, Pfizer was effectively telling these countries “to save your people, relinquish your sovereignty.”
IBIJ wrote: “One official who was present in the unnamed country’s negotiations described Pfizer’s demands as “high-level bullying” and said the government felt like it was being “held to ransom” in order to access life-saving vaccines. Campaigners are already warning of a “vaccine apartheid” in which rich Western countries may be inoculated years before poorer regions. Now, legal experts have raised concerns that Pfizer’s demands amount to an abuse of power.”
“Pfizer asked for additional indemnity from civil cases, meaning that the company would not be held liable for rare adverse effects or for its own acts of negligence, fraud or malice. This includes those linked to company practices – say, if Pfizer sent the wrong vaccine or made errors during manufacturing.”
Carlos Murillo, Regional President for Latin America at Pfizer, is a board member of Council of the Americas, the notorious Wall Street lobby and think tank built to intervene against the left in the region. It was involved in helping foment violent coups such as Brazil’s in 1964 and Chile’s in 1973.
Created in the 1960s by David Rockefeller at the behest of John F. Kennedy, it became the main space for negotiating foreign debts in Latin American countries, bringing together among its directors the two major private lending banks, Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan’s First National. It became the centre for the development of neoliberal programs for Latin America, with close connections with the Department of Commerce and the Department of State, and is the principal private body driving U.S. foreign policy on Latin America.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that Pfizer’s terms resemble those of the sovereign loans which terrorised Latin America in the 1980s and 90s.
Also on the Council of the Americas board is Antonio Ferreira, Vice President of Procurement Latin America at Johnson & Johnson, whose vaccine was approved by Anvisa without complication, as was the case with AstraZeneca, which is also a Council of the Americas corporate member.
Council of the Americas’ darling inside the Bolsonaro regime is Chicago Boy Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, a veteran of Pinochet’s Chile, whose presence on the Bolsonaro ticket secured U.S. investor support for Brazil’s “business friendly” neofascist project. “No room for feelings” was how COA vice president of policy Brian Winter described investor opinion before the election. Once in office, Winter told attendees of the World Economic Forum to “prepare to be dazzled” by Paulo Guedes.
Bolsonaro’s government has been obsessed with pension reform since coming to power – a top priority of Paulo Guedes. For years Brazilian pension reform has had some unusual supporters outside, such as NATO adjunct Atlantic Council. 70% of Brazil’s Covid 19 deaths have been people over 60. Social movement the MST calculates that, consequently, the Bolsonaro government is now saving R$231 million per month in pension payments.
In May 2020, when Bolsonaro made his infamous remark that “only the weak, the sick and the elderly should be worried” about Covid-19, it was reported by Reuters that Guedes ally Solange Viera of government department Susesp, who had been involved in pension reforms pushed the previous year, had remarked in a meeting: “It is good that deaths are concentrated among the elderly … This will improve our economic performance, as it will reduce our pension deficit,” Viera’s words were a window to the dark thinking at the heart of Bolsonaro’s administration.
A year later, as Brazil’s nightmarish April ended with 100 thousand lives lost, Guedes was filmed in another ministerial meeting claiming that China created the virus, and ridiculing China-Brazil collaboration CoronaVac – the only option for the vast majority of Brazilians – as inferior to Pfizer’s vaccine. At time of publication only 15% of Brazilians have received the first dose of any vaccine at all, in a country which until recently led the world in mass inoculation.
Whilst the belated arrival of Pfizer’s product in Brazil is welcome in a country starved of doses, it is practically useless outside Brazil’s major cities, as smaller municipalities do not have the deep freezing required for storing it. Thus it will likely become the vaccine of the wealthiest strata of Brazilian society.
Targeting Russia and China
As 14 Brazilian State Governments desperately sought to bypass Bolsonaro and purchase Sputnik V directly, the far right president, now known to be under U.S. instruction, tried to intervene at the Supreme Court, which rejected his attempt to block states from autonomously purchasing the Russian vaccine.
Only when forced by the Supreme Court to make a decision on Sputnik V, regulatory agency Anvisa’s eventually rejected the vaccine as the U.S. had earlier requested, which has caused scandal and confusion in Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere. After the decision announced on April 26, the agency eventually presented its justifications three days later, for the veto of importation of the raw materials so that production could begin at the União Quimica plant, which has been ready for months.
Much of the controversy rests with the fact that Anvisa rejected Sputnik V on a technicality without conducting their own tests. So when it was reported that “all” the sample Sputnik V batches received by Anvisa contained replicating Adenovirus, this was misleading. Anvisa’s forced conclusion was drawn from the manufacturer’s documentation, not from actually testing the vaccines.
A document from the Gameleya institute refers to a maximum limit of RCAs, or replicating adenoviruses. Yet Gameleya insist this does not mean that the vaccine normally contains them, and that Anvisa is misrepresenting a quality control consideration for manufacturing.
In addition it is estimated that half the population has already been infected with adenovirus in question Ad5. In the instance that a patient did receive a “low quality” dose, which did somehow contain replicating Ad5, at worst they would develop cold-like symptoms, such as those which regularly come as a side-effect of vaccine shots.
Anvisa’s president Antonio Barra Torres, a Bolsonaro ally who even joined maskless demonstrations with the far-right leader during the early months of the pandemic, was forced to admit that their decision might not stand: “We are not closing the door at all. These data presented can be reviewed, corrected, and resubmitted. But the regulator’s decision is the picture of the moment…”
Barra Torres is not the only example of Bolsonaro’s direct influence at Anvisa. In November, Bolsonaro chose another loyalist, Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Luiz Kormann, to take over as a director, further increasing the president’s influence at the regulator. Kormann was an early and vocal critic of CoronaVac, instead advocating the discredited Hydroxychloroquine treatment being promoted by Bolsonaro. When Anvisa controversially suspended testing of CoronaVac following the suicide of one of its subjects, Kormann shared social media attacks on São Paulo governor João Doria, calling him “China boy”. To complete the picture, Bolsonaro’s special advisor on foreign policy is a Bannonite former State Department employee.
CoronaVac now accounts for 80%+ of doses so far administered in Brazil. Were it not for the persistence of São Paulo’s State Government and Butantan Institute it may have never have been approved at all. Had it been approved for emergency use in September, as Butantan Institute requested, it could have been a game changer for Brazil’s pandemic. Hostility at the military dominated federal government prevented that from happening.
Through Anvisa’s latest controversial decision, the political “malignance” talked about in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services report, which had already been lost in translation and misinterpreted as medical risk, has now been supplanted by technical insinuation that the Russian vaccine is medically unsafe. A technicality, a small possibility that a potentially “defective” dose of Sputnik may cause cold-like symptoms, has been transformed into a damaging vaccine “health risk” rumour, and propaganda weapon. Brazil’s rejection of Sputnik V was reported around the world, shorn of crucial context and detail.
As a result, under a president who has made a series of notorious anti-vaccine statements, the credibility of Brazilian regulator Anvisa is at stake, as is the safety of its largely unvaccinated population in the country’s poorest regions.
“A political decision”
Whilst media has focussed on Russia’s reaction, distrust within Brazil of a politicised Anvisa, and fears about the motivations behind its decision are growing.
Epidemiologist Eduardo Costa, former Health Secretary of Rio, and professor at the Osvaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) which is the Brazilian manufacturer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, said that the controversy involving Anvisa’s decisions regarding the emergency use of vaccines, including imports, “give rise to the suspicion that technical arguments are silly, that they are nothing more than a smoke screen to satisfy unexplained interests”.
Professor Costa dismissed Anvisa’s technical justification for rejecting Sputnik V: “This is the basic process used in this viral vector technique, including that of AstraZeneca, which Anvisa did not question,” he added.
Russia expressly denied that Sputnik V contains replicating Adenovirus, as it was revealed that Anvisa did not carry out its own testing of the vaccine. A document from its developer the Gamalaya institute,used by Anvisa to back up its decision, contained reference to a maximum tolerable amount of replicating Adenovirus, not a confirmation that the product actually contained it.
“Adenoviruses that serve as vectors are no longer capable of replication”, continued the professor. “What can happen is that before the vaccine is purified, there may be some remnants of the initial culture, but that should disappear.” referring specifically to the reference to acceptable limits in manufacturing process that the Gameleya document contains.
“These questionable positions by Anvisa are not that uncommon – they come from behind. Today, due to a series of factors, the existence of an explicit struggle waged between our country on the one hand and all those who want to impose on Brazil a total dependence on American imperialism has been witnessed,” he said. “Basically, that’s what this is about,”
Governor of Bahia, Rui Costa of the Workers Party (PT), has been one of the most vociferous in the fight to gain approval for the Russian vaccine for his state’s 15.3 million population. Costa says he does not understand Anvisa’s stance, and suggested that the agency needs carry out its own tests, or to seek technical information from 61 countries that have already approved Sputnik V, such as Argentina and Mexico. Costa also points out earlier irregularities in Anvisa’s decision making throughout the crisis:
“We were unable to understand, last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, what were the scientific standards that Anvisa used to enter the courts to prevent states and municipalities from monitoring who was possibly contaminated, at the airports, measuring the temperature and offering a Covid test. At the time it seemed to me a much more defensive parameter for the agency than a technical standard,” Costa said.
“I am not a scientist, but I have now watched a video from the National Biosafety Committee that legitimizes the use of the (Sputnik V) vaccine. It is a federal body, responsible for biosafety in Brazil. What I expect from Anvisa is to test the vaccine to see if we have a replicating virus, as they said. We want them to be willing to analyse. More than 20 million people have already taken this vaccine, someone would report it if something important had happened” the governor argues.
Costa insists that if it is authorized he will vaccinate the Bahian population with Sputnik V, including himself and his family.
Regional experts have also queried Anvisa’s decision. Heriberto García, the director of the Institute of Public Health of Chile also contradicted the Brazilian agency’s conclusions. García revealed that he also asked Russia’s Gamalaya institute for clarification about possible presence of replicating adenovirus and potential adverse reaction. But García added that even if the developers of Sputnik V confirmed the presence of “adenoviruses capable of replicating”, the Chilean regulator would not necessarily reject it.
“We have to evaluate the benefit of being vaccinated compared to not being vaccinated. If the (adeno) virus replicates, you will at most get a simple cold. If you don’t get vaccinated, you can become infected with Covid-19,” García told Reuters. Drawing on data from the vaccine’s use in Argentina and Mexico, he remarked that side effects observed from Sputnik V are no more severe than seen in Chileans who have received the Pfizer/BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines.
In Europe, Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has both suspended and/or limited to certain age groups after a risk of potentially lethal blood clots was identified. In the United Kingdom, the vaccine will not be given to under 30s, whereas in other countries it is limited to use with the elderly.
Anvisa however did not suspend use of AstraZeneca as a result of the European findings, despite the risks being far more serious than those potentially posed by rogue presence of replicating adenovirus in the Sputnik V vaccine.
Bahia governor Rui Costa says he supported Anvisa’s to not suspend the use of AztraZeneca, as many European countries did, due to the risk of thrombosis. “I agree with the agency that the benefits in this case are much greater than the risks”.
Asked about Anvisa’s technical criteria, which it says follows that of Europe and the United States, Costa pointed out that today, 80% of the agrotoxins approved by the agency in the country have been banned or banned by the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration). “So, how about approving FDA standards for the use of pesticides as well?” Costa asked, revealing clear contradictions in Anvisa’s approach.
In addition, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is yet to be approved in the United States at all. Risk versus benefit is true of any vaccine or drug, yet beyond Costa and his Northeastern Brazil grouping, the mantra that the “benefits outweigh the risks” was not seen applied to Sputnik V, by Anvisa, or the media. At the end of a month when 100,000 Brazilians had already died, Anvisa rejected a vaccine reported as safe and with 91.6% efficacy by British medical journal the Lancet, based on a theoretical risk that a bad batch of the second dose could give recipients common cold symptoms.
The furore around Sputnik V in Brazil has coincided with a neighbouring Argentina’s Foreign Minister Felipe Solá complaining about outstanding orders of Oxford-AstraZeneca. Argentina, which approved, and has been vaccinating its population with it Sputnik V since December, has complained about delays and the lack of transparency in AstraZeneca’s supply to Latin America as a whole, whilst the United States sat on a stockpile of the unapproved Oxford vaccine.
“The main problem is that we lack information about what happened to AstraZeneca. We were not told anything in writing. AstraZeneca did not explain precisely what is happening with the vaccines. We are still in negotiations with them,” he explained. Solá referred to 22.5 million doses that were due to be delivered by March. Solá complains that this delay partly due to the U.S. administration restricting the supply of raw materials that were supposed to arrive in Mexico for the production of the vaccine.
During 2020 Oxford/AstraZeneca was the only vaccine the Bolsonaro regime were interested in, purchasing 100 million doses in the early months of the pandemic, only for it to eventually account for only a small percentage of the country’s total doses so far.
Documents obtained under the freedom of information act revealed that the U.K. government had been secretly lobbying the far right candidate months before his election on behalf of AstraZeneca and other companies.
The U.S. withholding vaccines and technology to produce them whilst thousands die daily is normalised, whilst provision of vaccines and technology transfer from China and Russia is depicted as malevolent coercion.
The difference in media treatment of these vaccines themselves couldn’t be more clear. Despite being the first approved, Sputnik, and Chinese vaccines that followed, have been regularly omitted from side by side media comparison as if they did not exist.
The day after Anvisa’s presentation, a Guardian headline dismissed Sputnik V as “nothing more than a political weapon”. Whilst Brazilians and regional experts questioned the agency’s decision, anglophone media took it at face value, ignoring the inherent politics stemming from U.S. pressure on Brazil, and its rejection was deployed as a new tool in its propaganda war on Russia. The content of Anvisa’s widely disputed presentation was quickly laundered by a non Portuguese speaker through a blogpost on science magazine’s website. This post was then in turn quoted as if authoritative in both Brazilian and foreign media.
Anvisa’s decision was presented by TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional in terms of “active viruses” and “infections”, accompanied with computer animation of coronavirus travelling through the body and into internal organs. As JN did not specify that these theoretical viruses and infections were not Coronavirus, the inference was that by taking the Sputnik V vaccine they risked developing Covid-19, which Anvisa has never claimed.
On Foreign Policy, Jornal Nacional follows the State Department line to the letter, regularly running segments hostile to Russia and its president Vladimir Putin; sowing distrust and suspicion with the type of low level propaganda that North American and European viewers would be accustomed to.
It was not a surprise then, when, upon discovery of U.S. pressure to reject Sputnik V, JN’s anchor William Bonner, whom journalist Pedro Amorim once called “the most important politician in Brazil“, read out a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Brasília, which denied that they tried to convince the government to reject “approved vaccines”. This rebuttal made little sense, as in the timeframe covered by the Department of Health and Human Services report, no vaccines were approved in Brazil at all. This hapless reveal made it all the more imperative that a technical reason to reject the Russian vaccine was found.
Throughout the havoc wrought by U.S.-backed operation Lava Jato which brought Jair Bolsonaro to power and decimated public health funding, we were assured with the mantra that Brazil’s institutions were functioning correctly, by State Department-friendly Brazilian, British and North American pundits alike.
In effect, “Trust Anvisa” has become the “Brazil’s institutions are working” of its pandemic, as Bolsonarista necropolitics dovetails with the genocidal vaccine diplomacy of the United States.