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Multiple Corruption Probes

Graves of people who died in the past 30 days fill a new section of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Manaus, Brazil (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In early July thousands of Brazilians took the streets to once more demand the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro. They were driven by damning new evidence from the ongoing Senate committee inquiry (CPI) that has been investigating the allegedly fraudulent purchase of several vaccines. Brazilians are dying in droves, with more than 530,000 lives lost to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The scandal around vaccine purchases is just one of 23 other charges facing Bolsonaro and his administration that the CPI has been probing since April 27. The former Heath Ministry Director of Logistics, Roberto Dias, testified on July 7 in connection with several charges of corruption over two vaccine negotiations: accepting a bribe to close a contract for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, and allegations of influence peddling, overpricing, forged documentation, and pressure to speed up the purchase of Covaxin, a vaccine from the Indian company Bharat Biotech.

The scandal around vaccine purchases is just one of 23 other charges facing Bolsonaro and his administration that the CPI has been probing since April 27.

During his testimony, Dias denied all allegations calling them false and said that the whistleblowers who brough them forward were lying. He was referring to Congressman Luis Miranda, who brought to light accusations on the Covaxin case, and Luiz Paulo Dominguetti, a negotiator for the AstraZeneca vaccine in Brazil. However, in a dramatic turn of events, the CPI ordered his arrest during cross examination for false testimony, only to have him released a few hours later after posting bail. Legal specialists called the move improper given that perjury is not part of the Brazilian criminal system.

A day before Dias’ hearing, a federal Health Ministry employee named Regina Célia Oliveira appeared before the CPI to explain why she had approved the $324 million deal of the Covaxin vaccine when it had obvious discrepancies on its invoice.

While showing a version of the document at the hearing, Senator Simone Tebet pointed out the various problems, including the negotiated price and vaccine quantities, an excessive downpayment, mistakes with language, and even dates. Oliveira admitted that there were serious problems but said that the invoice that was sent to her was a final and correction version, which she sanctioned. Oliveira also said her job was to inspect and authorize the contract, not change the data on it. She was working under Dias at that time. Senator Tebet called the document “fake” and asserted, “A closer look was enough to notice serious errors that configure fraud in the Covaxin contract.” He demanded why, “Nobody noticed?”

The CPI concluded the testimony with new evidence of failures with the Covaxin contract, which was suspended on June 18 following the allegations released by two whistleblowers: the aforementioned Congressman Miranda, and his brother who has a confusingly similar name of Luis Ricardo Miranda and is a federal employee at the Ministry’s Department of Logistics. The CPI then invited both brothers to testify.

The hearing took place on June 25 with the Congressman wearing a bullet-proof vest after receiving death threats, and accompanied by his brother Luis Ricardo. The latter told Senators he had found serious inconsistencies with the Covaxin deal and that the government had approved a purchase of 20 million doses of Covaxin paying an excess 1,000% from what had been initially been agreed upon in the contract. The brothers gave a power-point presentation detailing the alleged corruption scheme, including emails, conversations from the popular social media application WhatsApp.

They also included invoices and several documents such as a telegram from Brazil’s embassy in New Delhi proving that when Covaxin was launched in India, it cost only 100 rupees per dose ($1.34). However, after the Health Ministry signaled it wanted to buy the vaccine doses, the company that was negotiating the deal—Precisa Medicamentos (Precise Medications)—agreed upon $15 a dose with then-Health Ministry Chief of Logistics, Dias. The deal totaled about $320 million and was the most expensive vaccine negotiated by the federal government at the time.

Luis Ricardo, whose department handles all the purchases of imported materials and equipment for the Health Ministry, told Senators that he blocked the purchase because the contract signed with Precise Medications was inconsistent with the invoice presented to his department. In fact, the invoice came from a company called Madison Biotech – a shell company located in Singapore, which was requesting a $45 million advancement to be deposited into an offshore account for fewer doses than previously agreed upon. When he tried to clarify the invoice with his colleague Ms. Oliveira, she approved it anyway. At that point, Covaxin had not been authorized by Brazil’s health regulator agency, ANVISA, but Dias was rushing the purchase as an “exceptional request.”

After discovering the problems with the invoice, Luis Ricardo appealed to his brother to take the corruption allegations to the president himself. Congressman Miranda had been a strong Bolsonaro supporter and was able to arrange a meeting on March 20, during which Luis Ricardo explained the corruption scheme inside the Health Ministry. Bolsonaro, however, brushed it off. After that, the Miranda brothers decided to go public.

The Congressman, disappointed with the President he once supported, said, “for someone who said he was against corruption, his attitude is very strange.” Bolsonaro’s entire campaign was based on a serious anti-corruption platform.

Following the Mirandas’ testimonies, Luis Ricardo found that his computer access was blocked at the Health Ministry—an act the Congressman tweeted as illegal and retaliatory against his brother. “This persecution only proves they have a lot to hide,” he wrote. On July 3, Brazil’s Supreme court authorized the top prosecutor’s office (PGR) to open a probe into the Covaxin deal.

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The second vaccine deal being investigated at the CPI is a bribery scheme which was also supposedly being coordinated by Dias and Dominguetti, the other whistleblower that Dias denounced. Dominguetti is a salesman with Davati Medical Supply, a company that was negotiating the sale of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Brazil. Protestors denouncing the deal carried signs reading, “You’re Life Is Worth $1,” and photocopied $1 bills covered in red paint.

According to an exclusive newspaper interview, Dominguetti, who was supposedly brokering the $3.50-per-dose deal, said Dias bribed him with $1 per dose to help close a contract of 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine during a meeting in February. Dominguetti claimed that Dias said the payoff was the only way the vaccine would be considered for purchase by “a group” inside the Health Ministry. After refusing the first bribe, Dominguetti said he was invited to the Ministry for another talk. When he refused the payoff for a second time, the negotiations halted.

Dominguetti also told the reporter that he was very disappointed because it was a dream to close the deal with Brazil paying only $3.50 a dose, the same amount the vaccine was being sold abroad. “There was no such thing as profit margins. [Davati and I] wanted to be part of history as someone who helped,” he said. After all, Brazil is among the worst affected nations in the global pandemic.

Following his interview, the CPI called Dominguetti in to give testimony about his allegations on July 2. However during the hearing he contradicted his earlier assertions and instead presented a recorded audio conversation on his cell phone from Congressman Miranda who said, “[I have] a buyer with potential instant payment.” Dominguetti said the audio was proof that the Congressman wanted to negotiate vaccine purchases with the help of his brother. But the Congressman refuted the allegation, saying that the recording was part of a glove deal brokered months earlier between Davati’s CEO and an American company.

Dominguetti’s testimony turned into a 7-hour finger pointing debacle, which Senators concluded was a deliberate campaign to produce fraudulent evidence and discredit the Mirandas.

After the hearing Senator Rogério Carvalho asked the CPI to have Dominguetti’s cell phone confidentiality removed to review the recorded audio and messages. Senator Carvalho tweeted that “[The CPI had] seen indications that Bolsonaro made [direct] contact with intermediaries in the purchase of vaccines.” The CPI approved its access and found that even before his meeting with Dias in February, the Davati salesman was already exchanging messages with another men connected to Bolsonaro about ‘overpricing’ the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Since then Davati has tried to distance itself from Dominguetti by calling him an independent contractor who was not paid by the company. Furthermore, AstraZeneca declared it works directly with governments and does not use intermediaries to broker vaccine sales.

Since the hearing, Bolsonaro praised Dominguetti for not taking the $400,000 payoff during one of his hour-long social media live addresses. He then sarcastically told his followers, “[Dominguetti] mentioned the name of a certain Congressman during the CPI. I believe you know what this person stands for,” referring to Miranda.

The scandals over vaccine negotiations doesn’t end here. The CPI is also investigating the federal government’s refusal to respond to Pfizer-BioNTech’s proposal for an early contract with Brazil to secure its vaccines. Its representatives were trying to reach Brazil’s government since March 2020 and after months of unsuccessful attempts, Pfizer finally contacted Brazilian diplomats in the United States.

Eventually Pfizer offered Brazil 70 million doses at $10 each--50% cheaper than prices being charged to the U.S. and the European Union--but warned that there was no guarantee if Brazil didn’t show an interest in securing a deal. The CPI found that the Health Ministry and President Bolsonaro ignored 90% of the correspondence from Pfizer in 2020. It was not until May 6 of this year that the Health Ministry finally approved a $1.3 billion fund to purchase 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

With the CPI closing in on these various shocking scandals over the handling of COVID-19 vaccines, and growing civil unrest, Bolsonaro met with Pfizer executives in mid-June asking for doses to be delivered in advance and in July the Health Ministry finally announced that 15 million doses of the vaccine would be available for distribution.

Despite these late attempts to secure vaccines Bolsonaro remains in the CPI’s crosshairs. The investigative committee has been using the president’s own words to show how he has downplayed the seriousness of the virus, promoted the use of unproven drugs to treat it, undermined the Pfizer vaccine, and even Brazil’s own CoronaVac, which is being produced by Butantan Institute in partnership with the Chinese lab SinoVac. In fact, he undercut CoronaVac’s efficacy so many times that millions of his followers have refused to take it.

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As the investigations continue, the CPI will be also looking into two other vaccine contracts being negotiated: 66 million doses of Convidecia from the Chinese-lab CanSino and 10 million doses of the Russian Sputinik V vaccine.

If Senators stick to its 90-day calendar, the CPI is expected to wrap up on August 7. Unfortunately, the pandemic will perdure. And with the more transmissible Delta variant already lurking around the country, lack of vaccines, and high COVID-related deaths, Brazil is projected surpass the United States in number of lives lost to this virus by the end of August.

Anna Buss