Covid-19: Bolsonaro caught up in ‘vaccine war’ with Brazil’s institutions
President orders health minister to abandon plans to purchase a Chinese vaccine
Jair Bolsonaro: “You can’t have a judge deciding if you are going to take a vaccine or not,” said the Brazilian president. Photograph: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images
Brazil is facing another institutional clash over how to tackle the coronavirus outbreak after president Jair Bolsonaro ordered his health minister to abandon plans to purchase a promising Chinese vaccine.
The move once again places the far-right leader at odds with state governors and on a collision course with the supreme court, against which he threatened to use troops earlier this year during a struggle over quarantine measures.
The current crisis, dubbed “the vaccine war”, erupted after Brazil’s health minister General Eduardo Pazuello announced his ministry would buy 46 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine.
It is being developed by Chinese company Sinovac and is in phase three trials with its Brazilian partner, the biomedical Butantan Institute of São Paulo state whose governor João Doria hopes will be one of the first regions in the world to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
Brazil’s health ministry had previously invested in the vaccine being developed in Oxford University but in a video-conference with state governors Pazuello said: “The Butantan vaccine will be Brazil’s vaccine”.
But after a young supporter of the president wrote to him on Facebook saying he wanted “a future, but without interference from the Chinese Dictatorship”, Mr Bolsonaro replied: “WE WILL NOT BUY THE VACCINE FROM CHINA” and humiliatingly ordered his minister to rescind the just-announced purchase.
As part of their militant anti-communism, Bolsonaro and his supporters have long engaged in attacks on China, despite the Asian giant being Brazil’s largest commercial partner.
The president’s move prompted several parties to ask the supreme court to order him to collaborate with a national vaccination programme.
The court’s president has already signalled his willingness to rule on the matter, drawing a rebuke from Bolsonaro, who said vaccinations are not a question for the judiciary.
“You can’t have a judge deciding if you are going to take a vaccine or not,” he told supporters.
The president defended his rejection of the Chinese vaccine, saying the Brazilian people “will not be anyone’s guinea pig” and that any eventual programme would be voluntary, arguing vaccinations should only be compulsory for dogs.
Bolsonaro is a coronavirus sceptic, dismissing it as a “mild flu” and promoting unproven cures even when he caught the disease himself in July. In recent weeks a growing number of Bolsonaro’s online supporters have embraced the anti-vaccination campaigns being pushed by fringe groups on social media.
But cases already before the supreme court could give it the opportunity to authorise state and municipal administrations to carry out compulsory vaccination campaigns. This would mirror its decision at the start of the pandemic to allow them to impose rigid quarantine measures against the wishes of the president.
Governor Doria, who says immunisation will be compulsory in São Paulo, has defended a national vaccination campaign, but said if the federal government blocks one then his state could help other state and municipal administrations pay for up to 100 million doses of CoronaVac.
The São Paulo governor is one of the main rivals on the right to Bolsonaro and is likely to run against him in 2022’s presidential elections.
Doria responded to the president’s rejection of CoronaVac by accusing him of playing politics.
“Leave the 2022 election for another moment, president. Let’s not mix science with politics, health with ideology,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s own vice-president Hamilton Mourão admitted the crisis was due to the “political fight” between his boss and the São Paulo governor and that the government would end up buying the Chinese vaccine.
With more than 160,000 deaths Brazil has one of the world’s highest mortality rates from Covid-19.