For a country ravaged by the coronavirus, Brazil might welcome a race to create the first vaccine on its own soil – with the potential for early dibs.
But in the age of Covid-19 and under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, nothing is that simple.
As three joint-ventures begin testing a new vaccine in Brazil – and others wait in the wings – the provenance of the research has become a hugely divisive issue, complicated by xenophobia and conspiracy theories shared by anti-vaxxers and prominent politicians, including Bolsonaro allies.
The two big research players are the Swiss pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, working on a vaccine developed by the UK’s Oxford University, and Chinese biotech company Sinovac, working in collaboration with Brazil’s Butantan Institute. Both have begun the final Phase 3 testing of the virus. A third venture involving US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech is also conducting research in Brazil.
Two other potential research efforts – one involving another Chinese firm Sinopharm and the other led by Russia’s Sputnik V – are being negotiated by the state government of Paraná.
All see Brazil as an ideal country for research because of its surging rate of Covid-19 transmission – as of Thursday there were more than 3 million cases and over 104,000 deaths – as well as its internationally respected research centers and a public health system experienced in creating and distributing vaccines.
Officially, Brazil claims to be neutral in the race to develop the coronavirus vaccine.
Secretary of Science, Technology, Innovating and Strategy Health Supplies Helio Agnotti said as much on Tuesday, declaring Brazil will welcome whatever vaccine is approved for use first. “The adoption preference will be to arrive with proven effectiveness first. There is no problem in having an agreement with a certain partner, so that we close with another,” Agnotti said.
But his boss Bolsonaro has expressed his clear preference, promising citizens in a recent Facebook Live broadcast that the pandemic “would be overcome” once the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is available.
Last week, he signed a law to allocate $355 million for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – about $262 million for the purchase the technology and vaccine ingredients for 100 million doses, and $93 million for Fiocruz, the Brazilian partner, to adapt its manufacturing plant for the mass production of the vaccine.
At the signing event, interim health minister General Eduardo Pazuello said the government wouldn’t rule out agreements for other vaccines and that the Ministry continues to “seek all the technologies in the world” to combat the coronavirus.
Bolsonaro nevertheless took a swipe at the Sinovac trial, launched by São Paulo state governor João Dória, who has been a thorn in his side throughout the pandemic with outspoken criticism of the federal government’s handling of the crisis.
“What is more important about (the Oxford) vaccine that is different from the other one, which a governor decided to settle with another country, (is that) we can keep the technology,” falsely claimed Bolsonaro, referring to a part of the deal with AstraZeneca and Oxford that would transfer new technology to its research foundation Fiocruz.
However, the same is being done at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, under the deal Dória signed with Sinovac.
“Our race is for life. It is a privilege for Brazil to have two vaccines for the immunization of Brazilians,” Doria told CNN Brasil on Tuesday.
The spat between Doria and Bolsonaro – who have both been diagnosed with the coronavirus – is playing out in a country that already has its fair share of skeptics, and where false and unproven news about the coronavirus vaccine, including claims that the Sinovac one will contain “5G microchips” to track patients’ bodies, have proliferated. The Butantan Institute dismissed the claims as “totally unreasonable,” noting that there is no “digital control” component to its vaccine.
When Agnotti’s remarks Tuesday were broadcast on Facebook Live, comments on the page reflected the xenophobia. They included “China vaccine no” and “I am not taking vaccines from Russia and China.” The hashtags used included #vacinacomunista and #doriacomunista, which translate as communist vaccine and communist Doria, a reference to the São Paulo governor.
CNN has asked his ministry for details on what the government will do to combat the misinformation and fake news about the vaccines, but has yet to receive a response.
Those spreading the fake information include elected officials, such as Santa Catarina congressman Jesse Lopes. In a lengthy Facebook post, the Bolsonaro supporter claimed the Sinovac vaccine was the work of the “Chinese Genocidal Party” using “aborted baby cells,” an allegation rejected by the Butantan Institute.
Another Bolsonaro supporter, federal deputy Bia Kicis, asked her 680,000 followers via an unscientific Twitter poll if they would volunteer for the ‘Chinese vaccine’ and more than 90% of the 48,000 respondents said no.
These aren’t the first accusations against Bolsonaro supporters over spreading false information. On July 8, Facebook removed dozens of what it said are fake social media accounts linked to the offices of Bolsonaro and his sons. The accounts were used to target journalists and political opponents of the president, and also discussed the coronavirus, the Facebook statement said.
Marcio Moretto, coordinator of the Sao Paulo University project “Monitor of the political debate in the digital environment” – which analyzes fake news – told CNN that the skepticism about vaccines isn’t new in Brazil. A survey by the Brazilian Association of Immunization in 2019 reported that 59% of the population believe vaccines are totally unsafe.
“People are first suspicious of all vaccines and now the question of the Chinese vaccine was added,” he said. “It was combined with the narrative that China has manufactured this virus and would be the main beneficiary of the pandemic.”
Moretto said the President and his sons are central to that misleading narrative. “They foster and reinforce prejudices and xenophobia against Chinese people,” he said, noting that Bolsonaro insists on using the term “Chinese virus.”
He added: “So you have Oxford versus Chinese vaccines, or moreover, against communism.”