By DIANE JEANTET
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has fired a Health Ministry official after a newspaper reported his alleged participation in a graft scheme to secure COVID-19 vaccines, further straining the government’s defense of its pandemic response.
The order firing Roberto Dias, head of the Health Ministry’s logistics department, was signed on Tuesday night by Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, and published in Wednesday’s official gazette.
Newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported shortly before the decision that Dias allegedly asked a vaccine provider to inflate the prices of its doses by $1 each in order for the mark-up to be siphoned off.
The publication quoted Luiz Paulo Dominguetti as saying he approached Dias this year on behalf of his company, Davati Medical Supply, to negotiate the sale of 400 million AstraZeneca doses. Dominguetti told Folha that Dias said the Health Ministry would only purchase the vaccines if Davati agreed to the price-raising scheme, and he declined the proposal.
The Associated Press wasn’t immediately able to reach Dias for comment. He did not respond to a request for comments sent to his Health Ministry email address.
The Health Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the reason for Dias’s dismissal.
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca, who asked not to be named due to company policy, denied that the firm had worked, or been in talks with Davati Medical Supply. “Our vaccine is not available to the private market and we don’t work with intermediaries,” the spokesperson said over the phone.
The allegation puts additional pressure on Bolsonaro, whose handling of the COVID-19 crisis is already being investigated by a Senate committee. Members said on Wednesday that they will look into the newspaper’s reporting, which included some transcripts of Dias’s emails.
The Brazilian leader in the past week was also accused of turning a blind eye to possible corruption in another deal to purchase vaccines, just weeks after the country surpassed the milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Luis Ricardo Miranda, another Health Ministry official overseeing its import division, told the Senate committee earlier this year he faced pressure to greenlight the import of 20 million Covaxin vaccines from Indian pharmaceutical Bharat Biotech, and pointed to seeming irregularities in the invoices — particularly a $45 million upfront payment to a Singapore-based company.
Bharat has denied any allegation of wrongdoing with respect to vaccine supply. Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of corruption, and told reporters earlier this week he can’t know what transpires within his ministries. On Wednesday, he told supporters he doesn’t fear the investigation.
Late Tuesday, the Health Ministry announced that it was “temporarily suspending” the Covaxin contract. Comptroller-general Wagner Rosário said his office will evaluate the process by which it was signed.