Brazil’s vaccine wars are a political affair

This week, São Paulo Governor João Doria declared that the CoronaVac — the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech and Brazil’s Butantan Biological Institute — has achieved better results and lower rates of adverse side effects than any other vaccine trialed in Brazil so far.

With these results, the Health Ministry announced that the federal government would buy 46 million doses of CoronaVac. But President Bolsonaro pulled rank on his Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, canceling the agreement and saying “the Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig.”

Mr. Bolsonaro stated that a vaccine will not be made available to the population until it is scientifically proven and certified by health regulator Anvisa. This, however, goes against his unwavering support for hydroxychloroquine, which he sees as a potential Covid-19 cure, despite no supporting scientific evidence.

For many weeks, President Bolsonaro has spoken against making vaccines mandatory — saying that to do so would be a violation of individual freedoms. Data from consultancy .MAP suggests that his strategy is working: support for vaccines on social media dropped to 26% between October 12 and 19, after hitting an average of 89% between April and September.

And on Thursday, WHO Deputy Director General Mariângela Simão said that she does not recommend mandatory vaccination against Covid-19. President Bolsonaro – after several clashes with the organization and even affirming in June that WHO had lost credibility due to ideological bias – praised the director’s position as a dig at São Paulo Governor João Doria, who is in favor of mandatory vaccination in his state.

What is clear is that the dispute between Jair Bolsonaro and João Doria has nothing to do with public health. In fact, it is political one-upmanship with one eye on the 2022 presidential election.

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Correction: a previous version of this post called the Chinese lab producing CoronaVac “Sinopharma,” instead of Sinovac Biotech.