Brazil is a top testing ground for vaccines against Covid-19, but its plans for vaccinating its own population have been plunged into chaos by a political war waged by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Hit hard by the new coronavirus, Brazil has been tapped to help test several of the leading vaccine candidates, giving it a potential edge in the race to secure access to an eventual shot.
That could be a welcome silver lining for the country of 212 million people, which has the second-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, at more than 157,000.
But one promising test vaccine, developed by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech, has triggered the ire of the far-right president, who last week canceled his health minister’s plan to buy 46 million doses.
The vaccine’s most visible proponent in Brazil is the governor of the large and wealthy state of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria, who also happens to be one of Bolsonaro’s top opponents.
Thus “Joao Doria’s Chinese vaccine,” as Bolsonaro contemptuously called it, was caught up in an ideological firestorm fueled by jockeying for Brazil’s 2022 presidential election.
“No country in the world is interested in it,” Bolsonaro said of the vaccine, known as CoronaVac.
He nixed his own government’s purchase order after coming under pressure from hardline supporters to ban what one called the “Chinese dictatorship’s vaccine.”
Bolsonaro, whose government has tense relations with Beijing, said China was “discredited” by the fact the virus “was born there.”
“You have to read this situation in the context of the upcoming municipal elections (in November) and the presidential election” two years from now, when Bolsonaro is expected to seek a second term, said Geraldo Monteiro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.
“The vaccine is due to be produced (in Brazil) by the Butantan Institute, under the supervision of Sao Paulo state. That would be a political win for Doria, and (Bolsonaro) can’t allow that.”
The pandemic has widened the rift between Bolsonaro and Doria, of the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).
Doria is a leading proponent of aggressive measures to contain the virus, while Bolsonaro has downplayed it as a “little flu” and railed against social distancing measures.
“Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic from the outset,” said Monteiro.
“But some things can’t be politicized at the cost of people’s health. It’s completely irresponsible and borderline absurd.”
Politics has displaced what ought to be the real debate around CoronaVac, said professor Anthony Pereira, head of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.
“Joao Doria is an ambitious politician and if an institute in his state produced a successful vaccine I have no doubt that he would try to benefit from that politically,” he said.
“But the bottom line should be: does the vaccine work? Would it protect the health of the Brazilian people?”
Bolsonaro’s ‘biggest mistake’?
More than 85% of Brazilians say they want to be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to a poll in the journal Nature.
But Bolsonaro’s “very problematic” attitude “causes doubts in the population about the vaccine,” said Lucio Renno, head of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Brasilia.
Bolsonaro’s government has meanwhile allocated 1.9 billion reais (US$338 million) to purchase 100 million doses of another vaccine being tested in Brazil, developed by Oxford University and Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.
It is too early to say which vaccine or vaccines will emerge as the safest and most effective against Covid-19.
“Being against (CoronaVac) for ideological reasons might become (Bolsonaro’s) biggest mistake,” said Renno.
The president said Monday he saw no reason to stress over the race for a vaccine.
“I don’t know why we should be running after this,” he told supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia.
He then doubled down on his own preferred plan to handle the pandemic: hydroxychloroquine.
Bolsonaro has pushed the drug despite a raft of studies finding it is ineffective against the new coronavirus, and took it himself when he contracted the virus in July.
“Isn’t it cheaper and easier to invest in a cure than a vaccine?” he said.
“Look at me: I took hydroxychloroquine…. And it worked.”