The whistleblowers blamed the President and his powerful coalition chief for agreeing to buy the vaccine at a price that was relatively higher than options available in the market.
Brazil: On Thursday (June 24) President Jair Bolsonaro said that Brazil never spent one cent on Covaxin (vaccine developed by Indian company Bharat Biotech) and that it didn’t receive any doses of the vaccine from the country (India). The statement came at the backdrop of allegations of irregularities in the Bharat Biotech’s Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin deal that is currently going through investigation. The deal, made in February, to acquire 2 crore doses of Covaxin for 1.6 billion reais (Rs 2,400 crore) is under the lens here. The person in question regarding the deal is Brazil’s rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro who rose to power in 2019.
What is the BIG vaccine deal?
On Friday (June 25), two sensational testimonies by whistleblowers ( Congressman Luis Miranda and his brother Luis Ricardo Miranda) before a parliamentary panel raised suspicions on the vaccine deal with India’s Bharat Biotech. The whistleblowers blamed the President and his powerful coalition chief for agreeing to buy the vaccine (Bharat Biotech) at a price that was relatively higher than other options available in the market even when it lacked local regulatory approval. The alleged scandal has since then made it to the top headlines in the Brazilian press. Big newspapers like the Folha de São Paulo, O Globo, and O Estado de S. Paulo carried front-page stories over the weekend. #CovaxinGate has also been trending on social media since the scandal unfolded.
I am incorruptible, says President Jair Bolsonaro
President Jair Bolsonaro is currently under tremendous pressure to explain the deal with Bharat Biotech. At the news conference in the interior of São Paulo, the president said that there were no irregularities in the contract for the Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin shot and that there is no overpricing and nothing wrong with the contract. The president also added that his enemies are trying to stain his government (elected on an anti-graft platform) with accusations of corruption. “I am incorruptible,” added Bolsonaro.
What is the CovaxinGate controversy?
In March, Luis Ricardo Miranda (Brazilian Health Ministry official) informed President Bolsonaro about pressure being put on him to buy Indian vaccine Covaxin despite the concerns raised by him over the purchase of vaccine doses. Miranda further said that the government received an invoice worth $45 million for 30 lakh vaccine doses, an entity that found no mention in the deal made in February. No such vaccine arrived in Brazil against the payment. Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin didn’t even receive regulatory approval in the country for the vaccine by then. He said he was concerned because this firm, Singapore-based Madison Biotech, gave the impression of being a shell company. Miranda continued narrating the ordeal saying he started getting phone calls from superiors putting “atypical, excessive” pressure on him to approve the payment for vaccine doses. As allegations started mounting, prosecutors opened an investigation into the matter and the government cancelled the deal. Estado de S. Paulo (Newspaper) reported that the Brazilian government agreed to pay $15 per shot against the price quoted by Bharat Biotech, which was $1.34 per dose. This came after ignoring an offer from Pfizer in 2020 at a comparatively lower price.
The so-and-so’s deal
The lawmaker Miranda, one of the whistleblowers to appear on Friday wearing a bulletproof vest to the hearing, told the parliamentary panel that the President looked me in the eyes and said, ‘This is serious’. If I interfere with this thing, you know what kind of shit it is going to stir up. This must be so-and-so’s deal, the president added. Miranda, on being asked to reveal the identity of “so-and-so” told the person was Roberto Barros, a key Bolsonaro ally who heads the government coalition in the lower house of Brazil parliament. As per the Reuters report, the coordinator of the parliamentary panel has asked for Miranda brothers protection.
Bharat Biotech’s take on the allegation
Bharat Biotech, in a statement that was reported by international news organisations, said that we strongly refute any kind of allegation or implications of any wrongdoings whatsoever with respect to the COVAXIN supply. Madison Biotech was its global sales and marketing units, the statement further read.
In connection to the vaccine pricing, Bharat Biotech announced earlier that its vaccine pricing has been fixed in the band of $15-$20 per dose for foreign governments. The contract between Brazil and Bharat Biotech also shows the same range. Bhart Biotech said, as told to Reuters, that no vaccine, however, could be shipped as the approval and other purchase formalities didn’t see light of the day.
On June 22 , Brazil’s Health Ministry said in a statement that it had not made any payment to Bharat Biotech. And the matter was under legal review. The President has also accused the Miranda brothers of a smear campaign against him. Experts suggest that the controversy could hurt Bolsonaro’s prospects, who is already under the radar for mishandling the Covid crisis.