Jair Bolsonaro is facing a furious backlash over what critics are calling his “homicidally negligent” failure to prepare a coherent coronavirus vaccination programme as Brazil’s death toll again soars.
More than 181,000 Brazilians have died from the disease the president calls “a little flu”, with Latin America’s biggest economy now careering into a painful second wave.
But Bolsonaro’s far-right administration has been sluggish to explain plans to vaccinate Brazil’s 212 million citizens, betting nearly all of its chips on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Despite having the world’s sixth largest population, Brazil has yet to sign a contract with Pfizer and has eschewed the experimental Chinese vaccine CoronaVac for what many suspect are political motives. The CoronaVac has been championed by São Paulo’s rightwing governor, João Doria, a likely challenger to Bolsonaro in the next presidential election. Observers believe Bolsonaro’s hostility to the Sinovac vaccine is designed to stop Doria posing as Brazil’s saviour when that vote comes around in 2022.
Experts fear that strategy could cause thousands of unnecessary deaths by delaying vaccination. “It shows, once again, how disconnected the federal government is from the reality of the pandemic. They still haven’t grasped the severity of what we are going through,” said Natália Pasternak, founder of the Question of Science Institute.
How does the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine work?
The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid jab is an mRNA vaccine. Essentially, mRNA is a molecule used by living cells to turn the gene sequences in DNA into the proteins that are the building blocks of all their fundamental structures. A segment of DNA gets copied (“transcribed”) into a piece of mRNA, which in turn gets “read” by the cell’s tools for synthesising proteins.
In the case of an mRNA vaccine, the virus’s mRNA is injected into the muscle, and our own cells then read it and synthesise the viral protein. The immune system reacts to these proteins – which can’t by themselves cause disease – just as if they’d been carried in on the whole virus. This generates a protective response that, studies suggest, lasts for some time.
The two first Covid-19 vaccines to announce phase 3 three trial results were mRNA-based. They were first off the blocks because, as soon as the genetic code of Sars-CoV-2 was known – it was published by the Chinese in January 2020 – companies that had been working on this technology were able to start producing the virus’s mRNA. Making conventional vaccines takes much longer.
Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre, University of Bristol
Pasternak said it was reasonable for Brazil to have put faith in the AstraZeneca shot: “The problem was betting only on them and not striking other deals, knowing that even the AstraZeneca deal [for 100m doses] wouldn’t be enough to vaccinate the whole population.”
“Brazil has put all of its eggs in one basket,” Pasternak said, calling the government’s decision to give CoronaVac the cold shoulder “absurd”.
This weekend Brazilian newspapers were united in their response after the publication of a health ministry vaccination plan, which dozens of consultants claimed they had not approved. The document outlined a five-month plan to vaccinate 51 million members of priority groups such as health professionals and elderly people but contained no start date for a wider programme.
In a blistering frontpage editorial, the Folha de São Paulo slammed Bolsonaro’s “homicidal negligence”, claiming Brazilians had been “abandoned by the government” and condemned to “watch in distress” as vaccination began elsewhere.
“Bolsonaro’s killer stupidity over the coronavirus pandemic has crossed every single line. It’s time for him to abandon this criminal recklessness and at least pretend to have the ability and maturity to lead a nation of 212 million at such a dramatic moment in its collective history. Enough tomfoolery with the vaccine!” it declared.
The Estado de São Paulo lambasted Bolsonaro’s “lethal incompetence”, writing: “We know neither how many vaccines the federal government will have, nor when. There are signs there will be a shortage of needles. And the [health] ministry resists negotiating viable options, such as CoronaVac … for blatantly political motives.”
“There isn’t a single aspect of the handling of this crisis that hasn’t been contaminated by the obscurantism, neglect, incompetence or dishonesty of the president or his puppet in the health ministry,” it added.
The unusually strong criticism followed harsh words from the president of Rio’s medical and surgical society after one of its most distinguished members died from Covid-19. In a public tribute he slammed the “simply homicidal” coronavirus response and the “shortsightedness, inhumanity, negligence and criminal irresponsibility” of Brazil’s leaders.
On Saturday one of Brazil’s top political observers, Elio Gaspari, declared coronavirus “Bolsonaro’s very own Chernobyl”, comparing his Covid-19 denial to Soviet efforts to conceal the 1986 disaster. Another, Jânio de Freitas, said the “vaccine shambles” was cause for impeachment.
Daniel Dourado, a public health expert and lawyer, agreed Bolsonaro’s “disastrous” reaction warranted immediate impeachment: “It’s one outrage after the next. Dilma Rousseff was removed for so much less.”
But, remarkably, the public mood had yet to turn significantly against Bolsonaro, Dourado added. A bargain with a notoriously self-interested bloc of centre-right parties called the “centrão” has ensured calls for impeachment have been unsuccessful.
“At the start of the pandemic I thought that as soon as lots of people started to die, he’d be finished. But 180,000 have died and he’s still there,” Dourado said. “We’re talking about impeachment – but congress isn’t.”