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Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, in a file photo. Image Credit: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil will suspend a $324-million contract for COVID-19 vaccine from India that has mired President Jair Bolsonaro in accusations of irregularities, the health minister said on Tuesday, following guidance by the federal comptroller, the CGU.

The deal to buy 20 million doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin shot has become a headache for Bolsonaro after whistleblowers went public with alleged irregularities. One health ministry official said he alerted the president about his concerns.

Bolsonaro, whose popularity has faded as Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll climbed past 500,000, has denied any wrongdoing, saying on Monday he was not aware of any irregularities.

But thorny questions persist, and may pose problems for him ahead of next year’s presidential vote.

Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga told a news conference his team would investigate the accusations during the suspension.

“According to the preliminary analysis of the CGU, there are no irregularities in the contract but, for compliance, the health ministry chose to suspend the contract,” the ministry said in a statement.

CNN Brasil had earlier reported that the ministry had decided to cancel the contract.

Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation, citing comparatively high prices of about $15 a dose, quick talks and pending regulatory approvals as red flags.

In a statement, Bharat Biotech said it had followed a “step-by-step” approach for the regulatory approval and supply contract of its vaccine in Brazil, and had not received advance payments from the health ministry.

It added that the pricing of Covaxin had been set between $15 and $20 a dose for supplies to governments outside India.

Bharat Biotech has said it has not received any advance payments nor supplied any vaccines.

“During the past few weeks, there have been reports in the media at large misrepresenting the procurement process of COVAXIN, in Brazil and other countries,” Bharat Biotech said.

In the specific case of procurement of Covaxin by Ministry of Health, Brazil, since the first meetings with MOH Brazil during November 2020, until June 29, 2021, a step by step approach has been followed towards contracts, and regulatory approvals, during this 8 long month long process.

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Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan holds a dose of Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN, during a vaccination campaign at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi in a file photo. Image Credit: Reuters

Bharat Biotech said “EUA was received on 4th June 2021. As of 29 th June 2021, Bharat Biotech has not received any advance payments nor supplied any vaccines to MOH Brazil”.

Bharat Biotech has followed a similar approach towards contracts, regulatory approvals and supplies in several countries worldwide, where Covaxin is being supplied successfully.

“The pricing of COVAXIN has been clearly established between $15-20 per dose for supplies to Governments outside India. The pricing for Brazil has also been indicated at $ 15 per dose. Bharat Biotech has received advance payments from several other countries at the above price points, with supplies in process, pending approvals,” it added.

The deal is also being probed by a Senate panel investigating Brazil’s handling of the pandemic.

One leading opposition senator on the panel, Randolfe Rodrigues, filed a formal criminal complaint against Bolsonaro with the Supreme Court on Monday.

He asked the court to investigate why Bolsonaro “did not take any action after being notified of the existence of a giant corruption scheme in the Health Ministry.”