Bolsonaro fires health official who reportedly asked for vaccine deal bribe

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has fired a health ministry official who reportedly asked for a bribe in a vaccine deal, the latest graft accusation to rock the government amid investigations of its pandemic response.

With over half a million Covid-19 deaths and more new cases daily than any other country, anger is mounting in Brazil over missed opportunities to buy coronavirus vaccines. Accusations of corruption undercutting efforts have poured fuel on the fire, triggering new calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment.

On Tuesday, Brazil suspended a contract worth 1.6bn reais ($321m) for a vaccine from India’s Bharat Biotech, following allegations of undue pressure within the ministry. Bharat and the government have denied wrongdoing.

A former employee at the health ministry recently told the prosecutor’s office that he told the president that he was pressured to sign a contract that would increase the average price of doses by 1,000%.

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.

On Wednesday Bolsonaro’s chief of staff announced that the ministry’s logistics chief, Roberto Ferreira Dias, had been dismissed.

Newspaper Folha de S Paulo reported late on Tuesday that Dias had suggested a bribe of one dollar a dose during a dinner to discuss a different order of 400m vaccines, citing a representative from a medical supply company.

The health ministry said the dismissal of Dias had been decided on Tuesday morning, without addressing the allegations.

Dias could not be reached immediately for comment.

Leaders of a senate inquiry into the government’s pandemic response, who are already investigating alleged irregularities in a separate vaccine contract, said they would summon witnesses regarding the fresh accusations.

The head of the government coalition in the lower house of congress, Ricardo Barros, who was cited by Folha as having suggested Dias for his post in January 2019, denied the connection.

“He was not my indication,” wrote Barros, a former health minister and power broker in the centrist bloc that has shielded Bolsonaro from calls for impeachment, on social media. He added that he was not a government ally when Dias was appointed.

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