In August last year, when Brazil emerged as one of the countries hardest hit by the Coronavirus, Pfizer offered to the Ministry of Health to keep up to 70 million doses of the vaccine it was developing. But he received no response, so he repeated the offer and then a third time.
The president of the Latin American corporation, Carlos Murillo, told Congress that the following month, Pfizer’s global director sent the offer in writing to President Jair Bolsonaro, with copies to the vice president, chief of staff and health ministers. Economy and Ambassador of the United States.
No response received.
The severity of COVID in Brazil, with 16 million cases and 450,000 deaths, is often attributed to Bolsonaro, who remains lost in the crowd without vaccination and without a mask. However, a Congressional investigation shows that their neglect was accompanied by inefficiencies in key processes at nearly all levels of government: negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, relationships with other countries, and supply chain management.
“We can vaccinate two million people every day,” said Carla Dominguez, who has led the Brazilian national immunization program for most of the past decade. “If Brazil had signed agreements last year, we would be in a privileged position, like the United States or the United Kingdom.”
In contrast, while some parts of the world leave the epidemic behind, 2,000 people still die every day in Brazil. Although vaccines are given, vital local production is cut off every few weeks as ingredients run out. Now with the approaching winter season in the Southern Hemisphere, and less and less social distancing, health authorities fear a third wave.
Congressional hearings reveal a number of flaws, beginning with Pfizer’s efforts. It took three more shows and another six months for Brazil to seal a deal. Vaccines only started pouring in late April, and they expect to receive larger batches after July.
The negotiations with Pfizer were far from the only mistake with vaccination: delayed air shipment of vaccines; Reinforcements remained out of place in the depot while the cities halted vaccinations after using whatever was available as first doses; A senior Bolsonaro adviser was secretly vaccinated.
The government indicates that it has provided tens of millions of vaccines, making it among the countries with the largest number of vaccines offered globally. But that only covers 10 percent of its 212 million people with both doses, compared to 36 percent in the United Kingdom, the next country in the ranking.
In congressional hearings, the testimony of former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuelo added to the perplexity. He denied that he neglected negotiations with Pfizer, and said he had “always tried” to buy vaccines, but that the regulations prevented him from doing so.
He also denied that Bolsonaro ordered him to stop purchasing the Chinese CoronaVac vaccines in October, saying he had not received an official order to do so. At the time, Bolsonaro wrote on social media, “The Brazilian people will not be a rabbit in Guinea,” adding that he would not buy the vaccine. Pazuelo, an army general, replied days later, “One command, the other obey.”
Dimas Covas, director of the Butantan Institute, which produces the vaccine locally, told a different story. While testifying at the hearings on Thursday, Covas said his initial presentation – 60 million doses, made in July – also received no response. Talks progressed after meetings in August and an agreement was ready to be signed in October, until Bolsonaro intervened and suspended any deal.
The CoronaVac vaccine was a political divide due to its origins, but as options dwindled, the government had to buy it. By that time, it was already January. The damage to the proposed schedule has already been done, and a new, more aggressive form has emerged in the country.
Butantan and Fiocruz, who partnered with AstraZeneca, faced delays getting the active ingredients and ready-to-use doses. The virus has been blamed for a resurgence in India, bureaucracy at home and abroad, and diplomatic nonsense, such as when Bolsonaro suggested weeks ago that the Chinese manufactured the virus as “biological weapons.” The ministry has repeatedly cut its forecast on the number of vaccines that will be available, forcing Fucruz and Bhutantan to stop production.
“The initial estimates were made without much technical information,” said Mauricio Zuma, who heads the Fiucrose unit responsible for vaccine research and production. “The reality turned out to be a little different from what we had planned.”
“Brazil could lead vaccination operations around the world,” said Covas of the Botantan Institute. “The government just didn’t understand the importance.”