A Brazilian lawmaker who has accused the Brazilian government of misconduct in a 1.6 billion reais ($323 million) COVID-19 vaccination deal appeared before a Senate commision investigation on Friday wearing a bullet-proof vest for safety.
Congressman Luis Miranda and his brother Luis Ricardo Miranda, the Health Ministry whistleblower who raised concerns about the vaccine agreement with India’s Bharat Biotech, are crucial witnesses in a hearing that began on Friday.
The parliamentary inquiry is looking into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than half a million people in Brazil, and accusations that it deliberately delayed securing vaccines to fight COVID-19.
Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who is under growing pressure to explain the deal with Bharat, said on Friday there were no irregularities in the contract for the Indian drugmaker’s Covaxin shot.
“There is nothing wrong with the Covaxin contract, there is no overpricing,” he said at a news conference in the interior of São Paulo.
The president, who was elected on an anti-graft platform, added that his enemies were trying to stain his government with unfounded accusations of corruption.
“I am incorruptible,” he said.
The allegations regarding the Bharat contract threaten to damage Bolsonaro’s pledge of zero tolerance for corruption in his government.
The coordinator of the Senate inquiry has called for protection for the Miranda brothers, and also for the owners of the Brazilian company Precisa Medicamentos, which acts as an intermediary for Bharat.
The contract is being probed by federal prosecutors and lawmakers to see why the government struck a speedy agreement with Bharat after COVID-19 vaccine offers from Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) at a lower price were ignored.
Luis Ricardo Miranda and his congressman brother visited with Bolsonaro in March and told him about the questionable contract, but nothing was done to examine it.
According to legislator Luis Miranda, Bolsonaro understood the gravity of the issue and informed them that another lawmaker, Ricardo Barros, was participating in the Bharat transaction.
Barros, the government whip in the lower chamber of the legislature, stated on Twitter claiming he had no participation in the Bharat transaction and that further enquiry will reveal that the president did not mention his name in the meeting.
Bolsonaro’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about implicating Barros.
Luis Ricardo Miranda, head of imports at the Health Ministry, told senators he refused to approve an import license because an invoice for a first shipment asked for up-front payment and was sent by a company not mentioned in the contract, Singapore-based Madison Biotech.
Miranda has told prosecutors he was pressured by Alex Lial Marinho, an aide to one of Bolsonaro’s closest allies, former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello. Miranda’s account was backed up by his congressman brother.
The allegations raise uncomfortable concerns for Bolsonaro and Pazuello, who is under criminal and civil investigation for his handling of the epidemic while minister.
Bolsonaro claimed on Thursday that Brazil never paid for or got any doses of the Covaxin injection, and vowed to take action if any wrongdoing was uncovered in his administration.
Bharat Biotech said in a statement released in India, “We strongly refute and deny any kind of allegation or implication of any wrongdoing whatsoever with respect to the supply of COVAXIN.” Madison Biotech was described as the company’s global sales and marketing division.
($1 = 4.9477 reais)