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Brazil: Covid-19 vaccine contaminated by politics

At the forefront of coronavirus vaccine trials, Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil is paradoxically in total confusion regarding the immunization of its own population, at stake in an ideological war.

With thousands of volunteers, the country of 212 million people is conducting phase 3 testing - the ultimate before approval - of the world's most promising vaccines.

But the CoronaVac of the Chinese laboratory Sinovac Biotech is in the crosshairs of President Bolsonaro, who canceled the acquisition of 46 million doses announced by his own Minister of Health.

It turns out that the governor of Sao Paulo - the state by far the most bereaved by the coronavirus -, Joao Doria, is both the ardent promoter of this vaccine and a political opponent of the head of state.

Thus, "the Chinese vaccine of Joao Doria", as Jair Bolsonaro contemptuously designates it, has become the stake of a showdown before the presidential election of 2022, where Doria could thwart the project of re-election of the head of the 'State.

To add an ideological layer to a health matter, by his refusal of the vaccine, Mr. Bolsonaro gave pledges to his viscerally anti-communist supporters opposed to a vaccine "resulting from a dictatorship".

Referring to "a very discredited China" because "the virus was born there", he assured that his country was "not going to buy a vaccine which does not interest anyone".

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 157,000 Brazilians, the second worst death toll in the world.

- "At the limit of the absurd" -

"You have to read the situation in the context of the municipal elections (in November) and then the presidential elections," explains Geraldo Monteiro, political scientist from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

"The vaccine must be produced by the Butantan institute, placed under the supervision of the State of Sao Paulo. It would be a political conquest for Doria and (Bolsonaro) cannot allow it".

While Bolsonaro played down the pandemic, Doria has appeared on the front lines of the coronavirus fight for eight months and has been omnipresent in the media.

"From the start, Bolsonaro politicized the pandemic," Monteiro continues. He waltzed two ministers of health and called "manure" governors in favor of a confinement he did not want.

"Doria did the job and it bothered Bolsonaro a lot, because no one can overshadow the far-right president," Monteiro said. Especially not the Paulista governor, probable candidate of the PSDB (center right) for the presidential election.

"But there are things that cannot be politicized at the cost of the health of the population. It is totally irresponsible, bordering on the absurd," concludes Mr. Monteiro.

“The basic question should be: will this vaccine protect the health of Brazilians?” Said Anthony Pereira, Director of the Brazil Institute at King's College London.

If Bolsonaro "took the protection of public health seriously, he would not make the vaccine an ideological and political issue," Pereira adds.

This conflict is all the more "lamentable" as Brazil, champion of vaccination campaigns, has "world-class (research) institutes, such as Fiocruz in Rio and Butantan in Sao Paulo".

- "Doubt among the population" -

More than 85% of Brazilians are ready to be vaccinated, according to the journal Nature. But "the attitude (of Bolsonaro) is very problematic and sows doubts among the population," said Lucio Renno, Director of the Institute of Political Sciences at the University of Brasilia.

At this stage, it is impossible to say which of the phase 3 vaccines will be judged effective and safe. Brazil has committed 1.9 billion reais ($ 338 million) for 100 million doses of the vaccine from the University of Oxford and Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca with Fiocruz.

Faced with the presidential rejection of the "Chinese vaccine", "the states will find a way to get around the problem", predicts Mr. Renno, but "the lack of support from the federal government will slow things down".

The 27 states could form a "consortium" to acquire the vaccine, once approved by the public health agency Anvisa.

The Supreme Court could also disown Bolsonaro by overturning its veto on CoronaVac and imposing compulsory vaccination.

“Opposing (the vaccine) for ideological reasons could have been Bolsonaro's biggest mistake,” Lucio Renno concludes.

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