Brazil’s Bolsonaro faces probe for alleged COVID-19 vaccine negligence

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Brazil’s prosecutor general office has requested the country’s top court to investigate President Jair Bolsonaro for possible negligence in the handling of corruption allegations related to the purchase of vaccines from India.

Negotiations to buy the Covaxin shot produced by Bharat Biotech International Ltd. turned into a scandal when a government ally said he had personally warned Bolsonaro that a contract signed by the Health Ministry to acquire 20 million doses of the vaccine for 1.6 billion reais ($317 million) was plagued with irregularities.

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“It must be clarified what measures have been taken after the meeting between the president and his ally,” said Deputy Prosecutor General Humberto Jacques de Medeiros in a decision published on Friday.

The ally, lower house representative Luis Miranda, described a series of problems in the negotiations, including the use of an intermediary company, during his testimony to a congressional committee that’s already scrutinizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. Although there’s no indication that Bolsonaro would personally benefit from the transaction, members of that committee asked the top court to investigate him for turning a blind eye to the allegations.

Justice Rosa Weber, who’s responsible for the case at the top court, requested the opinion of the prosecutor general before making a decision. The deputy prosecutor general then asked for the court’s authorization to hear from all those involved and for the congressional committee to share with police any evidence collected so far.

Political Headache

The Brazilian real briefly erased early gains on news of the probe, which was first reported by Globonews TV. It traded little changed at 5.05 per dollar at 4:55 p.m. in Sao Paulo.

A police investigation authorized by the supreme court is the latest political headache for Bolsonaro, who already faces an additional 90 days of a congressional probe into his handling of the pandemic. The findings of the Senate committee have encouraged the opposition to file a “super impeachment request” against the president, combining all the elements from more than 100 previous petitions that are piling up on the desk of lower house Speaker Arthur Lira, a government ally.
The police investigation is also supposed to last 90 days, after which the prosecutor general must decide whether to shelve the case or press charges against the president. If accused of a crime, the lower house needs to authorize the top court to put him on trial.

“Even if the results of the investigation aren’t shelved by the prosecutor general, which seems to be he most likely outcome, lawmakers won’t allow Bolsonaro to stand trial at the top court,” said Bruno Salles, head of the Brazilian Criminal Sciences Institute and a partner at a law firm in Sao Paulo. “There have been two such attempts against former President Michel Temer recently, and both were rejected. I don’t see it happening now.”

Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment. Since the scandal broke, Bolsonaro has said he can’t follow everything that’s happening in the government and that he trusts his ministers. He has also said he was unfairly accused of corruption for a vaccine purchase that was never concluded.

After signing the contract to purchase the Covaxin doses, the Health Ministry suspended it earlier this week “for a deeper analysis”. No payment has been made and no vaccines have been delivered. Bolsonaro on Wednesday fired a Health Ministry official who was cited as putting unusual pressure to accelerate the deal.

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