Bolsonaro Mistrusts Covid Vaccines and Brazil Is Falling Behind

Across the globe, presidents and prime ministers are scrambling to score precious vials of Covid vaccine to protect citizens and gain political favor. Not Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

The president, who from the start has belittled the pandemic, refuses to be vaccinated, pooh-poohs any need to negotiate with drug companies and says the country will wait for prices to fall before buying syringes or needles. On Thursday, he said Brazilians don’t even want vaccines -- information he obtained by polling people in the street and at the beach.

“It’s nonsensical, these are experimental vaccines with no scientific evidence. You can’t impose this on people,” Bolsonaro said. “We have to be responsible, we can’t go with the crowd saying we need to rush.”

Bolsonaro Mistrusts Covid Vaccines and Brazil Is Falling Behind

His dismissal is rapidly leaving Brazil behind in the global race to immunize against a virus that has killed almost 1.9 million people, 200,000 of them in Brazil. While neighboring Argentina, Chile and Mexico have begun deploying shots, Brazil doesn’t even have a clear timeline to do so. Companies have been slow to submit requests to the local regulator, who has 10 days to clear the shots before they can be distributed. Talks with Pfizer Inc. have dragged on for two months.

Much like U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro nods to his base at times of crisis. At the height of the pandemic, he plunged into crowds, hugging supporters -- to the horror of local officials trying to impose restrictions. As criticism grew, Bolsonaro held firm to his stance that the economic toll was more important than the illness, calling those concerned “sissies” and insisting chloroquine -- unproven as a treatment -- was the solution.

Bolsonaro, who got infected himself and recovered, instituted a $60 billion program of cash handouts that drove down poverty and boosted his approval rating to a record.

“Bolsonaro is a denialist,” Deysi Cioccari, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, said in explaining his approach. “He doesn’t share the same set of basic facts as others, and has a base that is completely hypnotized.”

With almost 8 million cases, Brazil is among the world’s worst-hit countries. It was expected to do better vaccinating, given its deep experience through its once heralded public health system, known as SUS. It has 35,000 outposts and reached 90% of intended flu shots in 2020 despite the pandemic.

Bolsonaro Mistrusts Covid Vaccines and Brazil Is Falling Behind

The country also has two well-regarded institutions that struck deals to produce vaccines locally -- Instituto Butantan and Fiocruz, partnered with Sinovac and AstraZeneca, respectively. And despite what the president said, 73% of the public says it wants to be vaccinated.

Both institutions filed requests for emergency use of vaccines with the regulator on Friday.

More Than 17.5 Million Shots Given: Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker

The lack of action from the central government has left Brazil’s 27 states to fend for themselves with limited means to hunt the globe for deals. Richer states may leap ahead, exacerbating inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.

Laments about inaction by the federal government have pushed Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello into action. The third man to occupy the post since the crisis -- a military general with no medical background -- he harshly dismissed criticism this week, saying that Brazil had secured 354 million doses of vaccines and that all states would be treated equally. The government, which had bet on the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot, agreed to include China’s Sinovac booster to the plans despite Bolsonaro’s public objections to it “because of its origin.”

But Pazuello has also spread misinformation. At a news conference on Thursday, he said the AstraZeneca vaccine requires just one shot, and that the second dose is just to boost efficacy to 100%, from 70%, which is not correct.

He also said there weren’t vaccines available on the open market to a population of 210 million -- admitting, in effect, that Brazil had failed to seek them early -- and so the country would have to make its own.

The government is negotiating with pharma companies thinkng of the well-being of all Brazilians, the Health Ministry said in an e-mail. It added that there’s no conclusion yet on whether one dose of vaccine is enough to sustain immunity in the long run and that it will follow directives of the companies producing the shots.

The presidency said it wouldn’t comment beyond Bolsonaro’s webcast and the minister’s press conference.

After failing to acquire syringes and needles because of surging global prices, the administration streamlined rules this week for the purchase of vaccines and raw material. It also made a push to get 2 million additional doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from India. Governor Joao Doria, a Bolsonaro rival, has announced he’ll begin vaccinating in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest, on Jan. 25. He has begun calling the shot, developed with China’s Sinovac, “Brazil’s vaccine.”

Bolsonaro Mistrusts Covid Vaccines and Brazil Is Falling Behind

The haphazard and divided approach to vaccination mirrors the initial response to the pandemic when Bolsonaro dismissed the disease as a “little cold,” and each state imposed its own restrictions while trying to source masks, gloves, respirators and alcohol. Governors appealed to the supreme court to stop Bolsonaro from overruling social isolation measures.

While he backtracked on some of his more extreme comments and allowed the government to purchase Sinovac’s shot, he still joked about the Pfizer vaccine that “if you take it and become an alligator, that’s your problem,” because the firm doesn’t take responsibility for side effects.

Wellington Dias, the governor of the northern state of Piaui, expressed the frustration of many officials when he said: “Governors will work together and talk with all drug companies to seek a path to vaccination in Brazil. All we have right now is a game of pushing responsibility -- and 200,000 dead.”

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