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Bolsonaro uses vaccine trial for political gain

Thomas Milz
November 11, 2020

Brazil has allowed a coronavirus vaccine trial to resume following a volunteer's death. But President Bolsonaro and a political rival already instrumentalized the trial to the detriment of Brazilians, scientists said.

Workers in protective clothing dig holes for to bury the bodies of people who died of COVID-19
Image: Lincon Zarbietti/dpa/picture alliance

In Brazil, the global race to develop a viable vaccine that works against the coronavirus and can be distributed on a massive scale has boiled down to a power struggle between President Jair Bolsonaro and one of his most vocal political foes Joao Doria. The state governor of the economically and politically influential Sao Paolo plans to run against the president in 2022 and the coronavirus crisis is a major part of his election campaign.

Brazil's health regulator, Anvisa, on Wednesday allowed the resumption of the Phase III trial for Sinovac's CoronaVac vaccine candidate after suspending it Monday following the death of a 33-year-old volunteer. The Butantan Institute, which is affiliated with the Sao Paolo health authority, and is coordinating the trial, said the death had nothing to do with the vaccine candidate.

But the temporary suspension was enough for Bolsonaro and Doria to dig in for a political battle.

Read more: Brazil: Struggling with life after COVID-19

Bolsonaro used the occasion to discredit his rival. "Death, invalidity, anomaly. This is the vaccine Doria wanted to force all Paulistanos to take. The president said the vaccine could never be compulsory. Once more, Jair Bolsonaro wins," the president wrote on Facebook.

Natalia Pasternak Taschner, a microbiologist at the University of Sao Paolo, told DW it was "standard practice to interrupt tests when there is such a serious incident." 

Read more: Opinion: Bolsonaro lies to UN about pandemic, Amazon fires

Brazil an ideal testing ground

The high number of COVID-19 cases in Brazil, which with nearly 5.7 million cases is third in the total number of infections behind the United States and India, and the virus' continued spread, make the country an ideal testing ground for a vaccine. In addition to Sinovac, Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are also conducting tests there. 

Doria has expressed support for mandatory vaccination and said the step could be done with the CoronaVac if the trial proves successful. But Bolsonaro countered that vaccination should be voluntary and accused the governor of being an authoritarian.

A gloved hand holds a shot in front of Sinovac logo
In addition to Brazil, Sinovac is conducting trials in Indonesia and TurkeyImage: Rafael Henrique/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

"This politicization is criminal because it jeopardizes the immunization of the population," political scientist Marco Aurelio Nogueira told DW. 

He said Bolsonaro's attempt to use a volunteer's death for political gain was a sign of his lack of moral qualities, "The president celebrated the death of a young man as if this constituted his personal victory over Doria." 

Read more: Brazil's favelas forced to fight coronavirus alone

Despite having been infected with COVID-19, Bolsonaro has made it difficult for governors such as Doria to impose restrictions to curb the virus' spread. He has been scathing about measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing. He has instead championed hydroxychloroquine as an elixir, despite studies showing the drug is of no clinical benefit to patients hospitalized with the coronavirus. As the pandemic spread, he fired his health minister after clashing on how to address the spread of the virus.

He does not seem to agree with his new Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello either. At the end of October, Pazuello announced that the government had set aside funds to purchase 46 million doses of the CoronaVac from the Butantan Institute, which would be distributed via the public health system. But he was forced into contradicting himself after Bolsonaro announced that this would not be happening and accused him of "treason" on his Facebook account. 

A volunteer gets injected with the Sinovac vaccine
Sinovac's Phase 3 trials began in late July, with an aim to recruit 130,000 volunteersImage: Andre Lucas/dpa/picture-alliance

Much like his US counterpart, Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has blamed the pandemic on China and seems unwilling to pay a Beijing-based company for a vaccine.

Read more: Pandemic deepens precarity for Brazil's domestic workers

Vaccines do not have passports

Scientists, however, take a different approach.

"The Brazilian scientific community does not have any prejudices regarding the country of origin of a vaccine," said microbiologist Pasternak. "Scientists understand that vaccines do not have a passport. They only need to be safe and efficient." 

She said Bolsonaro's statements could come at a detriment to the Brazilian population.

"The political manipulation of the vaccine is leading to distrust with regard to science and could shatter the general trust of Brazilians in vaccines," she said. 

Read more: Latin America struggles to contain the pandemic

Pasternak also criticized the debate about compulsory vaccination set off by Doria as counterproductive.

"We don't even have a vaccine, so it makes no sense to talk about mandatory vaccination," she said.

Overall, she said, the Brazilian population was not averse to vaccination, seeing it more as "a right and not an obligation." 
She explained that children in state schools, civil servants and people on welfare had to prove that they had been vaccinated against certain diseases and this was generally not an issue.