Brazil suspends Covaxin contract after “serious accusations” of irregularities

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Brazil will suspend a $ 324 million Indian Covid-19 vaccine contract that has mired President Jair Bolsonaro on impropriety charges, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said on Tuesday.

The deal to buy 20 million-dose doses of Covaxin from Bharat Biotech has become a headache for Bolsonaro after whistleblowers publicized suspected irregularities.

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. But the thorny questions refuse to go away and could pose problems for him as the presidential vote approaches next year.

Queiroga told a press conference that his team would investigate the allegations during the suspension.

“According to the preliminary analysis, there are no irregularities in the contract but, for the sake of compliance, the Ministry of Health has chosen to suspend the contract,” the ministry said in a statement.

Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into the deal, citing relatively high prices, swift talks and pending regulatory approvals as red flags. It is also being reviewed by a Senate panel investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic.

In a hearing Friday, Luis Ricardo Miranda, head of imports at the health ministry, told senators he was refusing to approve an import license because an invoice for a first shipment required an upfront payment and had been sent by a company not mentioned in the contract.

Government officials have denied any irregularities in the contract and said the whistleblower’s allegations will be investigated.

One of the main opposition senators on this panel lodged an official criminal complaint against Bolsonaro with the Supreme Court on Monday. Senator Randolfe Rodrigues said he wanted the court to investigate “the serious allegations” and find out why Bolsonaro “took no action after being informed of the existence of a giant corruption plan within the ministry of Health ”.

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