Brazil’s coronavirus vaccine squabble another fight over US, China influence

Eduardo Baptista
·6-min read

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro killed a deal last week to buy a potential Covid-19 vaccine being developed by China, provoking a dispute with state governors and contradicting his own health ministry. While the argument may seem local, it is really another front in the US-China tug of war for global influence.

Bolsonaro cancelled the contract on October 21, just two days after Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello agreed to purchase 46 million doses of CoronaVac, being developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech. “The Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig … Hence, I have decided not to purchase this vaccine,” Bolsonaro wrote in a Facebook post.

This all happened the same week Bolsonaro met visiting US national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who was “accompanied by the largest economic-focused, high-level delegation from the US government in decades”, according to a statement by the US embassy in Brazil.

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The US delegation committed to investments in Brazil worth US$2 billion, according to the embassy, and this – along with Bolsonaro’s ideological ties to the Donald Trump administration – resulted in policy decisions that “lacked strategy”, according to Livia Machado Costa, a former researcher in international relations at Peking University and now senior editor at Shumian, a website focused on China analysis for a Latin American audience.

“[Brazil] is pursuing an automatic alignment with the United States, you see it in the question of vaccines, it’s not a coincidence,” she said.

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Bolsonaro used the meeting with the US delegation to express support for Trump’s re-election campaign, according to local media. That, along with his rejection of Sinovac, sent all the signals the current US administration wanted to hear, said Lucas Padilha, head of strategy at Brazilian think tank Observa China.

“It is an ideological choice,” said Padilha, adding that lost in the noise was the fact that the increased US investment was dwarfed by that from China.

“Today, China’s contribution to the Brazilian balance of trade is larger than that of the EU and US combined so those billion dollars coming from O’Brien will not reverse this macroeconomic reality,” he said.

Bolsonaro has long identified with Trump’s right-leaning populism. Both leaders have praised each other in public and Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo is part of a global populist movement founded by Steve Bannon, regarded as the architect of Trump’s winning election campaign in 2016.

Bolsonaro characterised China as a predatory economic power during his own presidential campaign in 2018, but quickly changed tack once elected due to the economy’s dependence on China’s massive imports of Brazilian soybeans and a host of other commodities.

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But relations have deteriorated amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected 5.4 million Brazilians and killed more than 157,000. In April, Eduardo Bolsonaro retweeted a reference to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, a term that angered Beijing when used by Trump in reference to the first outbreak of the disease in the central China city of Wuhan.

Brazil also seems to be following the US lead regarding China’s Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, which Washington has said is a national security threat. A number of countries are rethinking Huawei’s role in building next-generation 5G telecommunications networks, Brazil among them.

According to a June report in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo told Bolsonaro to ban Huawei from bidding for the country’s 5G network, citing a document in which Araujo is said to have described the company as a security risk. A Brazilian decision on 5G suppliers is expected next year.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s decision to reject the Sinovac vaccine could end up in the courts. On Friday, Luiz Fux, president of Brazil’s supreme federal court, said the dispute over CoronaVac needed to be “adjudicated” in the country’s highest court.

The dispute also involves Joao Doria, governor of the country’s richest state Sao Paulo, who was reportedly enraged by Bolsonaro’s decision to cancel the deal with Sinovac.

Doria had helped seal an agreement between Sinovac and Brazil’s Butantan Institute to test and produce the vaccine in his state. Butantan Institute is an established medical research facility that supplies a majority of the country’s vaccines.

Brazilian states have a large degree of autonomy so Bolsonaro’s move on Sinovac is not yet so clear cut, according to Niu Haibin, senior fellow at the Centre for American Studies at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. “If the state government does not need the federal government’s funds, then purchasing a vaccine is within its purview,” he said.

Separate from the deal blocked by Bolsonaro, Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa said in a statement on Friday that Butantan Institute could import 6 million doses of CoronaVac, but clouds now hang over the testing of the vaccine among volunteers in Brazil.

Butantan director Dimas Covas said conclusive results on the effectiveness of the vaccine would not be available until it had been tested on 15,000 volunteers in expanded trials.

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However, in August, Bolsonaro issued a decree that will set aside US$356 million to buy and eventually produce 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine jointly developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Despite Bolsonaro’s preference for a non-Chinese vaccine, Padilha said the regulator Anvisa would have the final say on whether Brazilians could use CoronaVac and its decision-making was science-based.

The Sao Paulo-based analyst said the Butantan Institute was widely respected in the state, which meant locals were not afraid of CoronaVac, even if they referred to it as the “Chinese vaccine”.

“Sao Paulo was the city with the third-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world so, regardless of whether hope has a Chinese origin or not, it is still a hope, so the local sentiment I sense is one of confidence in the Butantan Institute and one eye on China as an important partner,” Padilha said.

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