Brazil: Bolsonaro Caves on Chinese Vaccine, Thanks China for ‘Coronavac’ Ingredients

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wears a mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic as he leaves his official residence, Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, May 18, 2020. The logo on the mask reads "Military Police. Federal District." (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro thanked the Communist Party of China on Monday for their “sensibility” towards Brazil, announcing that his government would import 5,400 liters of ingredients to make “Coronavac,” a Chinese coronavirus candidate by the Chinese firm Sinovac.

The Chinese government would also send Brazil ingredients to produce the Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, Bolsonaro announced.

The statement of appreciation from the Brazilian president came as something of a surprise after he spent the summer insisting to the Brazilian public that he would not allow any Chinese-made vaccine or vaccine candidate into the country, going so far as to cancel an order of Coronavac made by his health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, in October. Bolsonaro asserted that he had canceled the order – which Pazuello later clarified was not binding – because he did not want the Brazilian people to be “guinea pigs” for China.

Sinovac had already been testing Coronavac on Brazilians for months through its partnership with the Instituto Butantan, which had come to an agreement with Sinovac to organize human trials. The Butantan testing revealed that Coronavac was only about 50 percent effective in preventing Chinese coronavirus cases, far below the success rate of approved vaccines from American pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna.

Bolsonaro appears to have dropped his resistance to Coronavac after its dispiriting results were published.

“The Chinese embassy informed us this morning that the export of 5,400 liters of ingredients for the Coronavac vaccine, [which was] already approved, is already on the way to [Brazil] [and] will arrive in the next few days,” Bolsonaro announced on Monday. “As well as the ingredients for the Astra-Zeneca vaccine which is being accelerated.”

The announcement, made on Twitter, appears to indicate that Brazil will manufacture its own products with the guidance of the Chinese vaccine candidate developers.

“I appreciate the sensibility of the Chinese government, as well as the effort of the ministers of [the Foreign Ministry], [Foreign Minister] Ernesto Araujo, [Health Minister] Eduardo Pazuello, and [Agriculture Minister] Tereza Cristina [Corrêa da Costa Dias],” Bolsonaro added.

Bolsonaro did not clarify the quantities of alleged ingredients for the AstraZeneca vaccine would arrive in Brazil from China. Reuters estimated that the amount of Coronavac ingredient stock would make for about 8.5 million doses of the vaccine candidate.

Terça Livre, a conservative Brazilian outlet, noted that Bolsonaro also shared a photo of himself alongside Chinese dictator Xi Jinping in sharing his statement on Telegram.

The Brazilian president, who has vocally stated that he will personally not take any Chinese coronavirus vaccine given that he has already overcome a coronavirus infection, said on Tuesday that the vaccine was indispensable to ensure that Brazil’s “economy does not stop working,” the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported. Bolsonaro had previously promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial medication, instead of any forthcoming vaccines; no vaccine had been approved against the Chinese coronavirus at the time of Bolsonaro’s most vocal hydroxychloroquine advocacy.

“Soon we will be among the top spots,” Bolsonaro said on Tuesday, referring to the percentage of the population vaccinated, “to give people more comfort [and] security for all and so that our economy does not stop working.”

Bolsonaro emphasized during remarks Tuesday that the private sector had a role in purchasing and distributing vaccines.

“Last week, we were approached by a representative of businessmen and we signed a letter of intent in favor of this, so that 33 million doses of the Oxford (vaccine) would come from the United Kingdom to Brazil, at no cost to the government,” Bolsonaro said. He claimed that the government would have access to about half of those doses and the businesses owned by the purchasers would distribute the other half among their employees.

As recently as October, Bolsonaro overruled Pazuello and canceled the importing of 46 million doses of Coronavac.

“The Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig,” he said, while human trials were underway at the Instituto Butantan. “My decision is to not purchase such a vaccine.”

Bolsonaro has not publicly clarified his change in disposition, though the Coronavac doses he approved will be produced in Brazil, not in China.
Bolsonaro’s opposition to Coronavac inspired at least one major protest in Sao Paulo, where the Instituto Butantan is located and where the governor, Joao Doria, has promoted making coronavirus vaccines mandatory. Hundreds of Brazilians assembled in Sao Paulo in November holding up signs inspired by Bolsonaro, boasting slogans like “my body, my choice” and “I am not a guinea pig.”

Bolsonaro campaigned against increased Chinese economic influence in Brazil in 2018 and has since claimed that free states have an “obligation” to fight communism, yet under Bolsonaro trade with China has greatly expanded. China is Brazil’s largest trade partner and has made headway in the Brazilian market following Bolsonaro’s visit to Beijing in October 2019. On that occasion, Bolsonaro met with Xi and signed eight trade agreements.

“Brazil needs China, and China needs Brazil,” Bolsonaro said at the time, describing his nominally conservative administration and the genocidal communist dictatorship as “completely aligned, in a way that reaches beyond our commercial and business relationship.”

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