Senate panel members hold a work of art with the names of COVID-19 victims at the commission, October 20, 2021. Photo: Edilson Rodrigues/Senate Agency
- The report pulls up Jair Bolsonaro for holding out for India’s Covaxin even though it was still in phase 3 trials, and refused offers from Moderna and Pfizer.
- One of Bolsonaro’s close allies in government was also indicted, in his case for very serious charges, as has the company that handled the Covaxin deal.
- As a result of the corruption scandal, Covaxin has lost its reputation in Brazil – paralleling its flatlining fortunes back home in India.
São Paulo: In a devastating blow to President Jair Bolsonaro, the report of a senate probe into his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has charged the Brazilian far-right leader with nine offences, including crime against humanity and crime of responsibility. The report has also indicted the president and some of his top aides for malfeasance in the tainted deal for the purchase of 20 million doses of Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech, which has come under some scathing criticism.
Two top executives of Bharat Biotech’s former business partner in Brazil, Precisa Medicamentos, have been indicted for “running an organised crime” besides committing fraud and forgery.
At a tension-filled chamber on Wednesday, the rapporteur of the parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI), Senator Renan Calheiros, presented his report to the 11-member panel which will vote for its approval on Tuesday (October 26). Reading a summary of his report, which runs into 1,180 pages, the senator named Bolsonaro as the main culprit for uncontrolled COVID-19 infections in Brazil.
The president, said the rapporteur, should be held responsible and investigated for nine crimes, including crimes against humanity, which could result in imprisonment; and crimes of responsibility, which may lead to the president’s impeachment. For all the nine crimes together, Bolsonaro can be sent to prison for up to 40 years. “The president has committed many crimes and he will pay for them,” Senator Omar Aziz, president of CPI, said at the beginning of the session on Wednesday.
Televised live on national networks and watched by millions, the CPI report was tabled just six days short of six months of CPI investigation, which has exposed how the Bolsonaro government made little effort to contain the virus.
“This inquiry gathered evidence that clearly demonstrated that the federal government chose to act in a reckless manner, deliberately exposing the population [to the virus],” said Senator Calheiros, emphasising that the government allowed the spread of virus in the country as a “deliberate and conscious” policy to follow the so-called “herd immunity” strategy. The number of infections in Brazil, says the report, could have been 40% less and saved 1,20,000 lives if the government acted in time with responsibility.
Though the Brazilian president has been slapped with the maximum number of charges, the report indicts 65 persons – mostly political heavyweights – for 29 different crimes. Those indicted include Bolsonaro’s three sons, federal senator Flavio, federal deputy Eduardo and Rio city councilman Carlos, four federal ministers, three former ministers and three federal deputies. Two Brazilian companies, Precisa Medicamentos and VTCLog, have also been charged with “acting against public interest”.
Out of 65 persons named by CPI, 11 have been indicted for irregularities in the Covaxin deal. Both the Brazilian firms, too, have been charged for their role in the $300-million contract with Bharat Biotech, which has been in the crosshairs of the inquiry since June.
All about Covaxin
When the CPI began its work on April 27, the panel had a very broad mandate of looking at the “acts of omission and commission” by the Bolsonaro government. But in June, after a whistleblower exposed corruption in the purchase of Covaxin, the probe turned all its attention to the vaccine deal with India.
With the burgeoning scandal, known here as CovaxinGate, becoming a symbol of Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to the pandemic, the panel summoned the maximum number of witnesses to testify about the irregularities in the contract with the Indian vaccine manufacturer. Now, the revelations about the contract make the centrepiece of the report as a 100-pages long chapter, called “The Covaxin Case”, has been devoted just to the deal with the Indian firm.
Scanning all the aspects of the contract, CPI has brutally dissected the whole Covaxin deal. From the details of the report emerges a scandalous picture in which corners were cut at every step of the $300 million contract amid a raging pandemic.
As per the CPI report, the decision to buy the Indian vaccine was a corruption scheme hatched at the highest level of Brazilian government. As Covaxin was not eligible for emergency use authorisation (EUA) by the Brazilian drug regulator (ANVISA), says the report, federal deputy Ricardo Barros, who is the leader of government in Congress, got a bill passed in 2021 that would allow the automatic authorisation of a vaccine in Brazil, if it was already approved in India.
“This is serious because there was a warning from the Brazilian ambassador to India, on January 5, about the opaque and rushed approval process of Covaxin, without final efficacy data in that country [India] for emergency use, which caused strong internal distrust both among the specialists and people,” says the report, questioning the way Brazilian government sought an approval for Covaxin.
At the heart of the Covaxin scandal, according to the CPI report, is a letter sent by Bolsonaro to the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, on January 8, 2021, just five days after the vaccine had been given EUA by the Indian drug regulator. In his letter, Bolsonaro told Modi that Covaxin had been selected for inclusion into Brazil’s national vaccination plan. The senate panel found this commitment from Bolsonaro highly incriminating.
“It turns out that phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccine had not even been completed in India. During that period, by the way, Brazil ignored the offers from Pfizer, the most used vaccine in the world whose clinical trials were completed in Brazil, as well as those of Janssen (single dose) and Moderna,” says the report.
For his role in the Covaxin deal, Ricardo Barros who is one of the closest allies of Bolsonaro, has been indicted with the very serious charges of “incitement to crime”, “formation of a criminal organisation” and “administrative improbity”. Two executives of Precisa Medicamentos, Emanuela Medrades and Francisco Maximiano, have also been charged with these crimes in addition to the charges of “using false documents”.
After signing an MoU with Bharat Biotech in November 2020, the Brazilian firm had represented the Indian company in all its dealings with Brazil’s ministry of health. Emanuela Medrades had also signed the contract with the ministry in February as a representative of the Hyderabad-based company.
Since it came on the CPI radar, the image of Bharat Biotech has been badly sullied in this country. Now, as the senate report has put out its findings and recommendations for action in black-and-white, the vaccine manufacturer’s will be damaged further. The vaccine, says the report, could have caused serious damage to Brazilians had they been vaccinated with it.
“First, it is necessary to point out that Covaxin is a vaccine questioned around the world… Furthermore, months after its launch, Covaxin has not got international acceptance and the Indians, the only people who have been vaccinated with it en masse, live the trauma of not being able to travel to most countries as fully vaccinated persons,” says the report in a part of the Covaxin chapter which points out the delay in approval to the Indian vaccine in the US and Europe.
A costly affair
Under the contract between the Brazilian government and Bharat Biotech, the highly-priced vaccine was to be sold at $15 per dose. But as ANVISA refused to grant emergency use authorisation to Covaxin with the CPI investigators looking for the money trail in the deal, the contract came under a cloud. As the scandal became too hot to handle for the Bolsonaro government, the contract was first suspended and then cancelled completely in July this year.
Throughout the CPI investigation, a number of senators raised doubts about the safety of the Indian vaccine, especially because it had not yet received the approval from the WHO. The CPI report has articulated the issue of vaccine safety quite forcefully.
“WHO has delayed the decision regarding the inclusion of Covaxin in the Covax facility program (sic), which has already been awarded to dozens of other vaccines. Sabyasachi Chatterjee, president of the respected All India People’s Science Network platform, says the WHO’s repeated postponement of granting emergency use authorisation to Covaxin is yet another demonstration that Bharat Biotech has failed to convince the world of that its vaccine is effective and safe,” says the CPI report, quoting an interview Chatterjee gave to Karan Thapar for The Wire, whose link is included in the footnotes.
In addition to questioning the safety of Bharat Biotech’s vaccine, the Brazilian inquiry also severely criticised the Brazilian government for accepting its business model of using shell companies.
“The CPI verified that the business model of the sale of Covaxin by Bharat Biotech, passively accepted by the [Brazilian] ministry of health, with the use of “shell companies” in Singapore (Madison Biotech) and in the United Arab Emirates (Envixia), suffered wide international rejection. In the Philippines, the National Task Force against Covid-19 has publicly criticised Bharat Biotech’s demand to sell Covaxin through Madison Biotech,” says the report.
CovaxinGate became a scandal in Brazil in June when it was revealed that a federal deputy Luis Miranda and his brother, Ricardo Miranda who is a ministry of health official, had met Bolsonaro in March to complain about corruption in the Covaxin contract. The Miranda brothers’ complaint was based on an invoice for an advance payment of $45 million to Madison Biotech, the Singapore-based shell firm which was not part of the contract.
But Bolsonaro, the CPI report says, continued to bat for expediting the deal, defended the acquisition of Covaxin and failed to act on the corruption matter brought to his attention. As a police investigation into the contract was opened only on June 30, many days after the Miranda brothers had testified at the commission, the CPI has indicted the president with malfeasance in the Covaxin case.
In addition to crimes against humanity and crimes of responsibility, it is the charge of malfeasance which can politically damage Bolsonaro.
The last laugh?
The parliamentary commission of inquiry doesn’t have powers to put on trial or punish individuals indicted by it. After its report is approved by the 11-member commission on Tuesday, the report will be sent to the prosecutor-general (PGR) and the Speaker of Congress for further action. The current PGR, Augusto Aras who is considered close to Bolsonaro, is not expected to move an inch on the report.
Arthur Lira, the speaker, who is also an ally of the president, is also likely to sleep over it as he has been with more than 100 pleas for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Aware of the political reality, the CPI may move Supreme Court on whose orders the commission was set up. There is already a discussion about going to the International Criminal Court at The Hague with the charges of crimes against humanity against Bolsonaro.
Severely damaged by six months of uninterrupted probe into his government, Bolsonaro stands on quite a sticky wicket. But on Wednesday, the president’s camp was showing a brave – and brazen – face to the media. When asked by reporters outside the senate how Bolsonaro would react to the CPI report, his eldest son, Senator Flavio, said his father would receive the report about the crimes with a hearty laughter. Then he broke into a loud laughter, as if imitating his father. Upon learning of Flavio’s reaction during the presentation of the CPI report, Senator Omar Aziz said that Bolsonaro would laugh not out of relief, but out of fear because “there is the justice of men and the Divine Justice”.
Since the virus hit Brazil in February 2020, Bolsonaro attained international notoriety for dismissing it as a “little flu”, urging people to gather in public places without masks, pushing unproven drugs as “preventive treatment” and sowing doubts about the efficacy of globally-accepted vaccines.
All this happened while more than 6,00,000 Brazilians were killed and close to 22 million infected by the virus. Angered by the president’s attitude, the victims’ families have been demanding justice. Now, with the CPI probe done and its report submitted, a fight for justice between the two sides is in the cards.
Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in São Paulo, Brazil.