Brazil Opens Criminal Probe Into President Over Indian Vaccine Deal

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SÃO PAULO—Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized prosecutors to investigate President Jair Bolsonaro over accusations he ignored alleged irregularities in his government’s procurement process to buy India’s Covaxin Covid-19 vaccine.

The investigation comes as the former army captain, who is planning to run for re-election next year, already faces criticism from public health experts for his handling of Covid-19, which has killed more than a half a million Brazilians.

However, political scientists said Mr. Bolsonaro still holds enough support in Congress to quash any legal proceedings against him. In Brazil, criminal charges against a president that would emanate from an investigation can only proceed with the backing of two-thirds of the lower house of Congress.

The probe centers on whether Mr. Bolsonaro ignored potential wrongdoing by senior members of the Health Ministry, who are alleged to have pushed ahead with a vaccine deal that others in the ministry had raised concerns about.

In testimony during a televised congressional inquiry last week into the country’s Covid-19 crisis, Luis Miranda, a Health Ministry official and whistleblower, said he faced “abnormal pressure” from members of the ministry to allow the importation of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine despite irregularities in the procurement process.

According to the terms of the contract, Brazil was only supposed to pay for the Covaxin doses 30 days after they were delivered. However, the Health Ministry received an invoice for part of the doses before they were delivered, and this invoice specified a different number of doses as compared with those in the contract.

Senators involved in the congressional inquiry have said they believe that these irregularities may indicate possible corruption in the procurement process and have called on authorities to investigate.

The Health Ministry signed the contract in February to buy 20 million doses of Covaxin for about $320 million and negotiated with India via a Brazilian intermediary.

Mr. Miranda said in his testimony during the congressional inquiry that he and his brother, a congressman, visited Mr. Bolsonaro in person on March 20 to discuss his concerns. He said Mr. Bolsonaro promised in March to take the case to the federal police. The federal police opened an investigation into the issue on Wednesday this week.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s press office said Saturday it wouldn’t comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. The president has previously denied wrongdoing, calling the inquiry an “idiotic” attempt to bring down his government. Bharat Biotech said in a statement that it didn’t receive any upfront payments in the deal and follows a widely accepted procurement process in all of its international contracts.

Brazil’s government suspended the Covaxin contract this week, following a recommendation from the federal comptroller, the CGU. “According to a preliminary analysis of the CGU, there are no irregularities in the contract but, for compliance, the Health Ministry decided to suspend the contract,” the ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

However, the federal comptroller said in a statement the day before that it is still investigating possible irregularities without yet reaching a conclusion.

Brazil’s Supreme Court said late Friday night that it would allow prosecutors 90 days to investigate Mr. Bolsonaro for the crime of dereliction of duty. A conviction would carry a jail sentence of between three months and a year. The announcement came after the Prosecutor General’s Office filed for permission Friday to probe the president.

Opposition politicians have called for an investigation into why Mr. Bolsonaro didn’t alert the federal police about Mr. Miranda’s concerns earlier.

Mr. Bolsonaro still enjoys support from his congressional base and military figures in the government, said Rafael Cortez, a political scientist at São Paulo-based consulting firm Tendências. However, the investigation could further weaken Mr. Bolsonaro, whose approval rating has recently fallen to about 24%. “The risks of Bolsonaro becoming a lame duck president are becoming ever greater,” Mr. Cortez said.

About 1,600 people are dying a day from Covid-19 in Latin America’s biggest country. While the country’s immunization campaign has picked up speed over recent weeks, only 13% of people have been fully vaccinated—far short of the level needed to contain transmission.

In recent weeks, demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment, saying the president didn’t do enough to secure vaccines last year or put in place other measures to control the spread of Covid-19.

Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently appeared in public without a face mask, criticized social-distancing measures imposed by state governors and disparaged China’s Sinovac vaccine, which is being widely used here.

Brazil’s Struggle With Covid-19

Write to Luciana Magalhaes at [email protected] and Samantha Pearson at [email protected]

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