Covaxin scandal explodes in Brazil; President Bolsonaro named in conspiracy
At a Congressional hearing on Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic, health ministry official Luis Ricardo Miranda said he had warned the President about pressure being mounted to purchase the Covaxin vaccine at an inflated price.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro name has cropped up in a massive scandal over the purchase of Bharat Biotech's anti-Coronavirus vaccine Covaxin.
At a Congressional hearing on Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic, health ministry official Luis Ricardo Miranda said he had warned the President about pressure being mounted to purchase the Covaxin vaccine.
Miranda, then the head of medical imports at Brazil's health ministry, received a request for the payment for 3 million doses of Bharat Biotech's Covaxin vaccine, but the invoice was troubling. That's because a company in Singapore was billing $45 million for an Indian Covid-19 vaccine that had not even been delivered.
The Senate panel grilled Miranda over how and why Brazil was even buying Covaxin when the far-right President regularly refuses vaccines and expert advice on Covid and has previously refused offers for cheaper and more effective vaccines.
Miranda reported that the most worrying was that Brazil's $300 million contract of Covaxin did not mention the firm's name that sent the invoice -- Madison Biotech, which was apparently a shell company.
The vaccine itself had not arrived and did not have regulatory approval in Brazil.
Miranda claimed that he received "atypical and excessive" pressure from his superiors to approve the payment.
Irregularities in the country's Covaxin deal forced the administration to cancel the agreement as prosecutors were prompted to open an investigation.
It is now suspected that the Covaxin deal was a front to embezzle millions of dollars and that a key ally masterminded the plan and that Bolsonaro was in on it. The scandal has caused the Senate committee to decide whether or not to formally accuse the President of malfeasance.
According to the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo, Bharat Biotech initially quoted a price of $1.34 per dose, but Brazil agreed to pay $15 per dose, which is more than any other vaccine it purchased.
Miranda raised this point to his brother, a Congressman. They reportedly went to the President on March 20 to warn him about the red flags in the contract.
Miranda told the committee that the President told him that if he were to interfere with this thing, it would stir up "some kind of shit and that "this must be so-and-so's deal."
When the senators pressurised Miranda to identify "So-and-So", he -- after initial hesitation -- yielded and named Ricardo Barros.
Barros is a powerful congressman who is the head of Bolsonaro's coalition in the lower house.
Barros, a former health minister, denied his involvement, as did the President and accused the Miranda brothers of a smear campaign. For Bolsonaro, the scandal comes at a crucial time as his support and popularity are dwindling, and polls place him far behind Leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in next year's elections.
The country's shortage of vaccines and the death toll look not only inept but also potentially criminal, along with the President having been accused of criminal activity. If senators formally accuse Bolsonaro of malfeasance for failing to have Barros investigated, he could be tried in the Supreme Court and removed from office. However, that is unlikely as Prosecutor General Augusto Aras is seen as an ally of the current regime.
Bolsonaro's immediate problem is Barros. If the President protects him, he will go against the anti-corruption platform and campaign that helped him win his presidency in 2018, but if he does not take his side and crosses him, the alliance with Barros's 'Centrao' coalition could cease to exist.
Bolsonaro has a fragile relationship with the Centrao, which is a loose group of parties known for gaining access to government elements. The alliance has notably protected the President from facing more than 100 impeachment cases brought against him by opponents in Congress. Arthur Lira, the gatekeeper to open impeachment proceedings, is the speaker of the lower house.