Brazil: a Chinese vaccine of Covid-19 in the sights of Bolsonaro

Brazil is at the forefront of coronavirus vaccine trials, but President Jair Bolsonaro is causing confusion.

With thousands of volunteers, the country of 212 million people is conducting phase 3 testing – the ultimate before approval – of the world’s most promising vaccines.

But the CoronaVac of the Chinese laboratory Sinovac Biotech is in the crosshairs of President Bolsonaro. This one canceled the acquisition of 46 million doses announced by its own Minister of Health and this vaccine seems today to become the object of a political battle.

Because one of the ardent defenders of this vaccine is none other than the governor of Sao Paulo – the state by far the most bereaved by the coronavirus -, Joao Doria, great opponent of the head of state. Thus, “the Chinese vaccine of Joao Doria”, as Jair Bolsonaro contemptuously designates it, is it at the heart of a showdown before the presidential election of 2022, where Doria could thwart the re-election project of the head of state .

“A vaccine that does not interest anyone”

To add an ideological layer to a health matter, by his refusal of the vaccine, Jair Bolsonaro has given pledges to his viscerally anti-Communist supporters opposed to a vaccine “resulting from a dictatorship”. Referring to “a very discredited China” because “the virus was born there”, he assured that his country was not going “to buy a vaccine that does not interest anyone”.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 157,000 Brazilians, the second worst death toll in the world.

“You have to read the situation in the context of the municipal elections (in November) and then the presidential elections”, explains Geraldo Monteiro, political scientist from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). “The vaccine must be produced by the Butantan Institute, placed under the supervision of the State of Sao Paulo. It would be a political conquest for Doria and (Bolsonaro) cannot allow it ”.

While Bolsonaro played down the pandemic, Doria has appeared on the front lines of the coronavirus fight for eight months and has been omnipresent in the media. “From the start, Bolsonaro politicized the pandemic,” continues Geraldo Monteiro. He waltzed two ministers of health and treated manures governors in favor of confinement which he did not want ”. “Doria did the job and it bothered Bolsonaro a lot, because no one can overshadow” the far-right president, continues Monteiro. Especially not the governor Paulista, probable candidate of the PSDB (center right) for the presidential election.

A “lamentable” conflict

“The basic question should be: will this vaccine protect the health of Brazilians? Says Anthony Pereira, Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London. If Bolsonaro “took the protection of public health seriously, he would not make the vaccine an ideological and political issue,” he adds.

This conflict is all the more “lamentable” as Brazil, champion of vaccination campaigns, has “world-class (research) institutes, such as Fiocruz in Rio and Butantan in Sao Paulo”.

More than 85% of Brazilians are ready to be vaccinated, according to the journal Nature. But “the attitude (of Bolsonaro) is very problematic and sows doubts among the population,” said Lucio Renno, Director of the Institute of Political Sciences at the University of Brasilia.

Bolsonaro’s biggest mistake?

At this stage, it is impossible to say which of the phase 3 vaccines will be judged effective and safe. Brazil has committed 1.9 billion reais ($ 338 million) for 100 million doses of the vaccine from the University of Oxford and Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca with Fiocruz.

Faced with the presidential rejection of the “Chinese vaccine”, “the states will find a way to get around the problem”, predicts Lucio Renno, but “the lack of support from the federal government will slow things down”.

The 27 states could form a “consortium” to acquire the vaccine, once approved by the public health agency Anvisa.

The Supreme Court could also disown Bolsonaro by overturning its veto on CoronaVac and imposing compulsory vaccination. “Opposing (the vaccine) for ideological reasons could have been Bolsonaro’s biggest mistake,” concludes Lucio Renno.

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