A Brazilian court has approved an investigation into Heath Minister Eduardo Pazuello’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, after oxygen shortages collapsed the health system of Manaus, capital city of Amazonas state, last week.
Federal Supreme Court Judge Ricardo Lewandowski greenlit the investigation on Monday. Pazuello now has five days to provide testimony to the federal police.
It is alleged that the Ministry of Health was alerted to the city’s looming shortages of oxygen – often critical for treating severe cases of Covid-19 – on January 8, but only took action on January 12, according to a request for a probe sent to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) by the political party Cidadania.
Pazuello himself visited Manaus on January 11, and the federal government subsequently sent supplemental oxygen to the city, but neither were enough to prevent a crisis. Hospitals in Amazonas soon ran out of oxygen, and on January 14 and 15 at least 29 patients died due to the shortages, according to an ongoing investigation.
“The reality is that there’s a lower supply of oxygen,” Pazuello acknowledged later. “Not an interruption, but a lower supply of oxygen.”
Pazuello and other top federal officials have defended the government’s reaction to warnings of a crisis in Manaus, arguing that no one could have predicted the rapid spike in Covid-19 cases that strained hospitals.
“This was a situation completely unknown to everyone. It was too fast,” Pazuello told a press conference on Tuesday.
He added that the city’s health crisis was compounded by a number of issues including “oxygen problems, lack of professionals, low number of beds.”
A separate report by Brazil’s Solicitor General has also alleged that during Pazuello’s trip to Manaus, he encouraged medical professionals to adopt an “early treatment” kit against Covid-19 that includes unproven drugs including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The health minister has since denied doing this.
House of Representatives President Rodrigo Maia told a Monday press conference that he believed Pazuello had “committed a crime” not only by letting the state’s health system collapse, but by promoting ineffective treatments for the city’s surging Covid-19 cases and by failing to obtain vaccines for the country earlier.
The growing criticism of Pazuello’s pandemic response in Manaus follows a recent investigation by CNN Brazil, which found that top executive Abert Bourla sent a letter to the Brazilian government in September offering 70 million doses of its vaccine, which was co-developed with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech.
But Pfizer received no response from the government, according to CNN Brazil.
Pazuello responded to a request for comment by CNN Brazil with an open letter saying that the purchase would only have frustrated Brazilians, as just 2 million doses would have been delivered in the first quarter of 2021.
He also said that certain conditions of the sale were unacceptable to the Brazilian government – including a payment guarantee and an agreement that contractual issues be tried in a US court – and accused the drugmaker of “creating embarrassing situations for the Brazilian Government, which will not accept market impositions – which will also not be accepted by Brazilians.”
Brazil began its vaccination campaign last Saturday, but the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has faced mounting criticism for its mishandling of the pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, the country ratcheted more than 8.8 million infections and the second highest number of deaths in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data.