Analysis. In the country with 100,000 cases a day, the risk of deadly variants threatens the entire world’s COVID response. Bolsonaro continues to downplay the disease while advancing a law allowing private organizations to compete with the government for doses.

In Brazil’s ‘biological Fukushima,’ the rich plan to skip the line for vaccines

Already the epicenter of the global pandemic, Brazil now risks undermining the international community’s entire fight against Covid.

With a slow-moving vaccination campaign, few and limited measures to restrict circulation and a rapid spread of virus variants, “It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima.”

This is the alarm sounded by the world-renowned neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, former coordinator of the Scientific Commission against the pandemic in the country’s northeastern states. He told Reuters that Brazil is a “time bomb,” with 100,000 cases per day and an explosion of mutations, which results in the risk of new variants that are even more deadly.

After the threshold of 4,000 deaths in a single day was exceeded on Tuesday (4,195)—with the fear that the threshold of 5,000 victims per day will soon be reached—Bolsonaro continues to ignore the only way to slow the spread: “a serious lockdown for at least 20 days,” as urged, among many others, by the epidemiologist Ethel Maciel.

“People are dying everywhere,” said the president, downplaying what is happening. He insisted: “We will not accept the policy of staying home and shutting everything down. The virus will not go away, it is practically impossible to eliminate it.” In the meantime, he is receiving applause from bankers and big business owners, whom he addressed at a dinner held Wednesday in São Paulo, promising to do nothing more than speed up the vaccination campaign.

But when it rains, it pours: even on the vaccine front, the government has taken care to make it clear that the lives of the rich are worth far more than those of the poor. It has done so through the bill known as fura-fila, “cutting ahead in line,” approved on Tuesday by the Chamber of Deputies with 317 votes in favor and 120 against, with the support of the President of the House, Arthur Lira, and the new Minister of Health, Marcelo Queiroga. It is a measure which, in an international context marked by extreme difficulty of access to vaccines, allows private parties to compete with the state in the purchase of vaccine doses, violating the criteria of equity guaranteed by the public health system.

And if the commitment of pharmaceutical companies to sell only to governments is such an obstacle, companies have already thought of a solution: that the Ministry of Health should buy the doses on their behalf, keep half and give them the rest. With the possibility, which was also discussed, to deduct the expense from taxes.

Already in March, Congress had approved a law that allowed the private sector to purchase vaccines authorized by the Agency for Health Supervision (ANVISA) in favor of their employees, provided, however, that they would give all the doses to the National Immunization Program (PNI) until the priority groups had been vaccinated, and then retain 50% of the doses.

However, the new bill, if it gets a green light from the Senate, would not only eliminate this condition, but would also make it possible to purchase vaccines approved in other countries—that is, by a foreign health authority—and not yet authorized in Brazil, with the only obligation for companies to give the government the same amount of doses.

And while the bill also technically binds companies to the priority criteria established by the PNI, no one believes these will be respected: critics complain that if there are already those who can cut ahead in line in the public health system as it is, it is easy to imagine what might happen in the absence of controls.

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