Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro undercuts the Chinese COVID vaccine his country is betting on
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro blasted a Chinese coronavirus vaccine being tested in the country just a day after his health minister said it would be distributed nationwide.
Eduardo Pazuello, the third official leading the health ministry since the pandemic began, had announced a deal to purchase the Coronavac vaccine that’s being developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. in partnership with Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute — under the watch of Governor Joao Doria, one of Bolsonaro’s main political enemies.
The agreement prompted a flurry of negative comments from Bolsonaro’s more ideological supporters who oppose the purchase of a vaccine from China. On Wednesday morning, the president took to social media to publicly disavow the deal.
“The Brazilian people WON’T BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG,” he wrote on his Facebook and Twitter pages, adding that billions can’t be spent on medication that is still being tested. “My decision is to not acquire the aforementioned vaccine.”
The incident underscores Bolsonaro’s conflicted relationship with China, Brazil’s biggest trading parter. After heavily criticizing the Asian country during the campaign trail in 2018, he tried to warm up to Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a trip last year. But just a few months ago, lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, his son, blamed the coronavirus pandemic on the “Chinese dictatorship.” The president has also made his alliance with U.S. President Donald Trump a central part of his foreign policy.
Commenting earlier this week on a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. and Brazil should reduce dependence on Chinese imports due to security concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian emphasized that China and Brazil are “comprehensive strategic partners.”
“Since the beginning of this year, despite the negative impact of the epidemics, China-Brazil practical cooperation has continued to grow,” Zhao said.
The Coronavac episode provided Bolsonaro with an opportunity to hit two of his main targets at once. Calling it “Joao Doria’s Chinese vaccine,” the president said his government won’t buy any vaccine before the health ministry and regulator Anvisa approve it. Yet the federal government has already set aside 2 billion reais ($357 million) for a deal to produce a shot being developed by AstraZeneca in partnership with Oxford University, which is in a similar trial stage.
Later on Wednesday, Brazil’s health authority Anvisa said it had received information that a Brazilian participant in the AstraZeneca trial had died. A person familiar with the matter said the volunteer hadn’t received an actual dose of the vaccine, and the company said trials would continue.
The decision to sign a preliminary agreement to acquire 46 million doses of the Butantan-Sinovac vaccine was made during a meeting between Doria and Pazuello on Tuesday. The purchase would only be made after regulator Anvisa had approved the medication, according to a statement issued after the meeting.
After Bolsonaro’s intervention, Doria asked the president leave aside political fights and focus on the pandemic. Other governors weighed in, with leaders of the states of Ceara and Espirito Santo among those who used Twitter to say decisions on vaccines should not involve ideology or electoral issues.
Bolsonaro and a handful of his ministers have already been infected with the virus. Pazuello confirmed Wednesday that he’s also tested positive for Covid-19.
Brazil’s response to the virus has been marred by infighting and a mish-mash of conflicting measures. Two of Bolsonaro’s health ministers exited this year over disagreements on his handling of the pandemic, including lockdown measures and the use of unproven treatments. Doria and Bolsonaro have also publicly bickered about everything from social distancing to the use of face masks and whether vaccines should be obligatory or not throughout the tumultuous year.
Municipal elections next month have added more tension to the public debate.
Earlier this week, the Sao Paulo government said that the phase III trial for Coronavac had shown the vaccine was the safest available thus-far, though it’s efficacy still needs to be proven.
Sinovac’s vaccine relies on an inactive version of the novel coronavirus to teach human immune systems to recognize and destroy the real thing. After completing early human testing in China, the company has launched the final phase of human testing in Brazil and Indonesia.
Brazil has been one of the hardest-hit countries by the virus, with the world’s third-most cases and second-most deaths.