Bolsonaro looks to be working against a vaccination programme for selfish reasons

São Paulo Letter: As global demand grows for vaccines, Brazil risks being at the back of the queue

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro: he and his allies stirred up anti-vaxxer sentiment. Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

Margaret Keenan appeared all over Brazilian media last week. As the first person in the world to get a jab as part of a mass vaccination programme against Covid-19, the Co Fermanagh grandmother instantly became a symbol of hope for better times ahead.

Yet any euphoria in Brazil at news that vaccines are now ready to start leading the world out of the grim months of the coronavirus pandemic have been tempered by the realisation that the country risks being a laggard in the race to vaccinate.

For public health officials abroad this is perplexing. Brazil has a century-long track record of successfully organising mass vaccination campaigns. That it is not ready now is mostly due to the mix of malevolence and incompetence radiating out of the far-right administration of president Jair Bolsonaro.

While other world leaders were working on preparations for when a vaccine would be ready, Bolsonaro and his allies were instead stirring up anti-vaxxer sentiment.


This was of a piece with his denialist approach to the pandemic, and played well with the unhinged, alt-reality element of his base. But it was also a cynical means of trying to undermine the efforts by São Paulo governor João Doria to have Brazil's most populous state in the vaccination vanguard.

Doria's administration has invested heavily in the CoronaVac vaccine being developed by Chinese company Sinovac. It is close to finishing final trials, and the state's biomedical Butantan Institute has already started producing doses in São Paulo. After methodical planning the governor has for weeks talked up the chances of an early start of a mass immunisation programme, in his own state at least.

Callous disregard

Rather than welcome this prospect Bolsonaro, who has shown nothing but callous disregard for the 180,000 Brazilians who have lost their lives to Covid-19, instead feels threatened by it. Doria’s diligence further exposes his own gross negligence on display right through the pandemic.

Now faced with what would be a major triumph for a political rival he might have to face in presidential elections in two years’ time, the president has worked to undermine faith in the Chinese vaccine and limit its impact in Brazil.

Bolsonaro even went so far as to order his health minister, army general Eduardo Pazuello, to drop his plan to adopt CoronaVac as a nationwide vaccine in lieu of the administration's inability to come up with any options as good. To do so would have been to admit Doria's response to the health emergency was the superior one.

The general meekly obeyed without raising a peep in public about the potential toll in lives. “It’s as simple as this, one commands and the other obeys,” he said.

This sort of cynical politicking is running out of road since the UK rollout began. With mass vaccinations starting abroad the public and political pressure in Brazil for a similar programme at home has suddenly been ratcheted up.

Vowing, as Bolsonaro did, that the Brazilian people “will not be anyone’s guinea pig” does not cut it any more. Instead such posturing just looks like he is working against a vaccination programme for selfish political ends even as a second wave grips the country.

Following this all too predictable collision with reality the president has dropped the anti-vaxx paranoia. But that does not mean his administration has a plan to carry out a national campaign.

Mounting public pressure

Instead Pazuello is flailing around, promising and failing to publish one as he throws out ever-closer start dates for when the government will start vaccinations in response to mounting public pressure.

He insists the federal government has enough doses on order to vaccinate 150 million Brazilians next year. But the delivery schedule in unclear. Drug companies have reported the health ministry has dallied on signing contracts. As global demand grows Brazil risks being at the back of the queue.

The general’s incompetence is provoking mounting pressure from across the political spectrum, the medical profession and civil society that if shown to be effective São Paulo’s CoronaVac vaccine be quickly incorporated into a national programme.

To do so would be a humiliating defeat for Bolsonaro and his health minister, but one being contemplated. In a meeting with state governors last week Pazuello said his ministry could yet turn to the Chinese vaccine “if there is demand”.