A maskless Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, greets indigenous children in Amazonas state, Brazil, on May 27 2021. Picture: HANDOUT VIA REUTERS/MARCOS CORREA
A maskless Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, greets indigenous children in Amazonas state, Brazil, on May 27 2021. Picture: HANDOUT VIA REUTERS/MARCOS CORREA

São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro/Brasília — Last August, when Brazil had emerged as among the worst hit nations by Covid-19, Pfizer offered the health ministry to set aside as many as 70-million doses of the vaccine it was developing. It got no answer. So it made the offer again. And then a third time.

In September, the company’s former Brazil head, Carlos Murillo, told congress, Pfizer’s global chief put the offer in writing to President Jair Bolsonaro with copies to the vice-president, chief of staff, ministers of health and economy and ambassador to the US.

He never heard back.

The severity of Covid-19 in Brazil, with 16-million cases and 450,000 lives lost, has often been attributed to Bolsonaro, who still wades unvaccinated and maskless into crowds. A congressional probe is making clear, however, that his neglect has been matched by incompetence at nearly every level of government in key processes — negotiations with drug companies, relations with other countries, and supply chain management.

“We could be vaccinating 2-million people a day,” says Carla Domingues, who ran Brazil’s national immunisation programme for most of the past decade. “If Brazil had signed agreements last year, we could have been in a privileged position, just like the US or the UK.”

Instead, while some parts of the world are putting the pandemic behind them, in Brazil, 2,000 still die daily. Though vaccinations are occurring, vital local production breaks down every few weeks as ingredients run out. With winter in the Southern Hemisphere looming and social-distancing falling away, health officials fear a third wave.

The congressional hearings are uncovering a range of failures, starting with the Pfizer efforts. It took three more offers and six more months for Brazil to close an agreement. Vaccines only began to arrive piecemeal in late April, with larger batches expected after July.

The dealings with Pfizer were far from the sole misstep in vaccinations: planeloads of shots were delayed; misplaced boosters sat at a warehouse as cities halted immunisation after using everything as first doses; a top Bolsonaro aide got vaccinated in secret.

The government notes that it has delivered tens of millions of shots, putting it among the top countries globally in terms of vaccines deployed. But that covers only 10% of its 212-million inhabitants with both shots, compared with 36% in the UK, the next country on the ranking.

CoronaVac ... was repeatedly bashed by the president who seemed to celebrate the suspension of clinical trials after a volunteer died, calling it ‘another win’

At the congressional hearings, testimony by former health minister Eduardo Pazuello has only added to the sense of bewilderment. He denied that he neglected the Pfizer negotiations, saying he “always” tried to buy shots but regulations prevented him from doing so.

He also denied that Bolsonaro ordered him to halt the purchase of China’s CoronaVac shots in October, saying he never got a formal order to do so. At the time, Bolsonaro wrote on social media, “The Brazilian people WON’T BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG,” adding that he wouldn’t buy the vaccine. Pazuello, an army general, responded days later by saying “one commands, the other obeys”.

Dimas Covas, the director of the Butantan Institute, which is producing the shot locally, told a different story. Testifying at the hearings on Thursday, Covas said his initial offer — 60-million doses made in July — also went unanswered. Talks progressed after August meetings and a deal was ready to be signed in October — until Bolsonaro stepped in, putting any agreement on hold.

CoronaVac has been a source of political divide because of its origins. Boosted by São Paulo governor (and Bolsonaro foe) João Doria, it was repeatedly bashed by the president who seemed to celebrate the suspension of clinical trials after a volunteer died, calling it “another win”. Covas said Butantan started to have problems recruiting volunteers for its clinical trials amid intense attacks against the vaccine, especially on social media, though he didn’t name Bolsonaro.

As options dwindled, the government bought CoronaVac. But by then, it was January. The damage to the proposed timeline was done, and a new, more aggressive variant was emerging in the country.

Both Butantan and Fiocruz, which partnered with AstraZeneca, have faced delays in getting ready-made doses and active ingredients. The resurgence of the virus in India, bureaucracy at home and abroad and diplomatic blunders — just weeks ago, Bolsonaro suggested the Chinese created the virus as “biological warfare” — have all been blamed. The ministry has repeatedly cut forecasts of how many vaccines will be available and forced Fiocruz and Butantan to halt production.

“The initial estimates were made without a lot of technical information,” said Mauricio Zuma, who leads the unit of Fiocruz responsible for research and vaccine production. “Reality turned out a bit different to what we planned.”

The health ministry’s goal of 1-million vaccinations a day has been reached only occasionally, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Daily numbers have been trending lower, and the schedule for deliveries of more shots from Butantan and Fiocruz remains cloudy.

Political infighting over the pandemic will continue as the congressional probe is expected to last for months. The investigation has seen its fair share of drama — threats of arrest, heated arguments and a brief suspension after Pazuello suffered a drop in blood pressure from six hours of questioning.

Efforts to remove Bolsonaro from office are unlikely to gain traction while he maintains a solid base of support among centrist parties and his own voters. But the investigation gives the president’s rivals a powerful platform from which to attack him. The sessions, which have taken over political news, often feature video clips of Bolsonaro dismissing the severity of Covid-19 and the need for vaccines.

Doria, the São Paulo governor, posted a meme showing himself as an alligator holding his vaccination card, a reference to the fact that Bolsonaro joked that the Pfizer shot could turn people into the reptile. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who’s plotting a comeback, told supporters in March, “Don’t listen to any idiotic decisions from the president or the health minister. Get vaccinated.”

The president’s mockery of vaccines has had an effect on those around him. In April, his chief of staff, army Gen Luiz Eduardo Ramos, was caught admitting to clandestinely getting vaccinated.

“I got it in secret,” Ramos said at a meeting in late April, unaware that he was being recorded. “I’ll be honest because I, like everyone, want to live.” He and the other participants didn’t know the meeting was being streamed online.

“Brazil could have led vaccinations globally,” Covas said. “The government just didn’t understand the importance.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on Bloomberg.com

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