Jair Bolsonaro claims 'victory' after suspension of Chinese vaccine trial

By Peter Beaumont and Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has sparked outrage by gloating over the suspension of clinical trials of the Chinese coronavirus vaccine after a volunteer’s death.

“Another victory for Jair Bolsonaro,” read a comment posted by the official Facebook account of Brazil’s far-right leader on Monday night after the country’s health regulator, Anvisa, announced it had halted testing of the CoronaVac jab.

Anvisa said the trial of the vaccine – which is being developed by the Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech – had been suspended as a result of a “adverse, serious event” involving a participant in Brazil.

But many Bolsonaro critics see a possible political motivation behind the move, and the head of the Brazilian research centre coordinating the trial claimed the volunteer’s death was not related to the vaccine.

The broadcaster TV Cultura reported on Tuesday that the “event” was suicide, saying it had seen the coroner’s report showing the trial volunteer had taken their own life.

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The CoronaVac is being developed in partnership with the São Paulo-based research centre Butantan and has been championed by São Paulo’s state governor, João Doria, who is one of Bolsonaro’s biggest political foes.

That rivalry has placed the CoronaVac at the centre of a growing political brawl with Doria, who many believe will challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency in 2022, who promised to implement a compulsory vaccination scheme in his state while the president opposed such a move.

On Monday night Bolsonaro wrote on Facebook: “This is the vaccine Doria wanted to force everyone in São Paulo to take. Another victory for Jair Bolsonaro.”

Those comments caused immediate anger. “163,000 dead in Brazil. And Bolsonaro says he’s won,” tweeted Flávio Dino, the leftwing governor of Maranhão state and one of the key figures in Brazil’s opposition.

Speaking on Tuesday morning Dino said Bolsonaro’s “bizarre, irresponsible and ridiculous” remarks reflected the president’s ideological opposition to China and its Communist party leaders as well as his “personal hatred” of Doria.

“Once more Bolsonaro has shown that he’s not worried about the lives and wellbeing of the population but simply his own ideological interests … Bolsonaro treats everything as an ideological war,” Dino, who is also seen as a potential leftwing challenger for the presidency, told the Guardian.

Ciro Gomes, another prominent leftist leader, tweeted: “Prison’s not enough for scumbags who play politics with a vaccine, the only way of bringing an end to the greatest public health and socioeconomic crisis in history.”

While vaccine trials are often halted to investigate suspected side-effects, including the phase 3 trial of the British Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, the language used by the Brazilian authorities was unusually strong although they provided no additional details except that the adverse event took place in late October.

Clouding the issue were comments from Dimas Covas, Butantan’s director, who told Brazilian TV that the volunteer’s death was not due to the vaccine. “We found this … decision strange, because it is unrelated to the vaccine. There are more than 10,000 volunteers at this moment,” he added.

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The decision to halt the programme comes just days before the first large batch of 120,000 CoronaVac shots are due to arrive in Brazil on 20 November. The rollout is now likely to be delayed.

CoronaVac shot has been embroiled in political controversy in Brazil, where Bolsonaro, who has a history of minimising the threat of coronavirus, has cast doubt on its prospective effectiveness.

He sparked confusion last month when he publicly rejected it, saying Brazilians would not be used as guinea pigs.

Bolsonaro has often expressed mistrust of China, particularly on the campaign trail in 2018, although he has softened his rhetoric somewhat in office.

Coming hard on the heels of the disclosure yesterday that the German BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine had demonstrated 90% effectiveness in its interim results, the Brazilian announcement marked the latest stumble in a global stop-start progress being watched anxiously around the world.

Critics have expressed concern about what has sometimes appeared an unseemly and occasionally unethical race to get vaccines approved for use.

With 170 teams working on different vaccines around the world, huge capital – including political – has been invested in getting the first successful vaccines to the market.

The Chinese government’s approach to vaccines has become controversial after it had been revealed that hundreds of thousands of Chinese had already taken experimental Covid-19 vaccines as part of a state initiative to protect frontline health workers and officials travelling to high-risk nations.

Critics have long warned that failure to follow proper international testing and safety protocols for potential Covid-19 vaccines risk undermining public trust and could increase public resistance to inoculation.

Another Chinese vaccine candidate, produced by Sinopharm’s China National Biotec Group (CNBG) is currently in phase 3 trials in more than 10 countries, including the UAE, where it has been granted emergency use authorisation after the country’s own testing.

The UAE has also been used to recruit volunteers for Russian vaccine candidates, where similar anxieties have been expressed about two Russian vaccines that were given hasty regulatory approval despite not having completed full phase 3 testing.

The Russian vaccine Sputnik V – developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow – was given the green light by Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation in August, while a second vaccine in Russia, EpiVacCorona, was also approved without entering phase 3 clinical trials.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday that all Russian vaccines against Covid-19 were effective, adding that the country would soon register a third shot against the virus.