Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired a health ministry official who allegedly asked for a bribe in a vaccine deal, the latest corruption charge to shake up the government amid investigations on its response to the pandemic.
With more than half a million deaths from Covid-19 and more new cases a day than any other country, anger is mounting in Brazil over missed opportunities to purchase coronavirus vaccines. Corruption accusations that undermine the efforts have added fuel to the fire, sparking new calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
Brazil on Tuesday suspended a contract worth 1.6 billion reais ($ 321 million) for a vaccine from Indian company Bharat Biotech, following allegations of undue pressure within the ministry. Bharat and the government have denied wrongdoing.
A former Ministry of Health employee recently told the prosecutor’s office that he told the president he was under pressure to sign a contract that would increase the average dose price by 1,000 percent.
Bolsonaro, whose popularity waned as Brazil’s Covid-19 death toll surpassed 500,000, denied any wrongdoing, saying Monday he was not aware of any irregularities.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff announced that the ministry’s logistics chief, Roberto Ferreira Dias, had been sacked.
S Paulo’s Folha newspaper reported on Tuesday evening that Dias suggested a dollar-a-dose bribe at a dinner to discuss a different order for 400 million vaccines, citing a representative of a medical supply company.
The Health Ministry said Dias’s dismissal was decided on Tuesday morning, without responding to the allegations.
Dias could not be reached immediately for comment.
Leaders of a Senate inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic, who are already investigating alleged irregularities in a separate vaccine contract, said they would call witnesses regarding the new charges.
The leader of the governing coalition in the lower house of Congress, Ricardo Barros, who was cited by Folha as having suggested Dias for his post in January 2019, denied the link.
“That was not my indication,” wrote Barros, a former health minister and power broker in the centrist bloc that protected Bolsonaro from impeachment calls, on social media. He added that he was not a government ally when Dias was appointed.