SAO PAULO (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired a Health Ministry official on Wednesday (June 30) after a report that the official asked for a bribe in a vaccine deal, the latest graft accusation to rock the government amid investigations of its pandemic response.
On Tuesday, Brazil suspended the contract to purchase 20 million doses for 1.6 billion reais (S$435 million), following allegations of undue pressure within the ministry. Bharat and the government have denied wrongdoing.
In Wednesday’s official government gazette, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff dismissed the ministry’s logistics chief, Roberto Ferreira Dias.
Lower house representative Luis Miranda, speaking last Friday (June 25) at a congressional committee probing Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic, said he personally warned the president about unusual pressure for the purchase of the Covaxin vaccine, produced by India's Bharat Biotech International.
During the conversation, as described by Miranda, Bolsonaro blamed his leader in the lower house, Ricardo Barros, for meddling in the health ministry, but didn't stop the purchase.
Luis Ricardo Miranda, brother of the lawmaker and an official at the health ministry, told the senators that in the analysis of the documents related to the purchase of the vaccine, information was found that didn't match the original text of Bharat Biotech's contract with the ministry.
He mentioned that some differences would be the form of payment, the amount of doses and the indication of intermediary companies.
Newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported late on Tuesday that Dias had suggested a bribe of one dollar per dose during a dinner to discuss a different order of 400 million vaccines, citing a representative from a medical supply company.
The Health Ministry said the dismissal of Dias had been decided on Tuesday morning, without addressing the allegations.
This is the first time that senators investigating the government's response to the pandemic probe corruption allegations involving Bolsonaro.
Up until now they were more focused on delays in vaccine purchases and the government's touting of unproven Covid treatments.
Leaders of a Senate inquiry into the government’s pandemic response, who are already probing alleged irregularities in a separate vaccine contract, said they would summon witnesses regarding the fresh accusations.
The head of the government coalition in the lower house of Congress, lawmaker Ricardo Barros, who was cited by Folha as having suggested Dias for his post in January 2019, denied the connection.
“He was not my indication,” wrote Barros, a former health minister and power broker in the centrist bloc that has shielded Bolsonaro from calls for impeachment, on social media. He added that he was not a government ally when Dias was appointed.
Bolsonaro, in a visit to the southern city of Chapeco on Saturday, attacked the members of the senate committee investigating the case, saying they target his government but refuse to probe state governors who received federal funds to fight the pandemic.
"Only one thing can remove me from Brasilia, and that's our God," he told supporters. "They won't win by inventing narratives."
On June 24, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said he wasn't concerned about the Covaxin vaccine issue and is focused on advancing the immunisation programme.