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A COVID-19 vaccine developed in China has not yet been approved for widespread use, but it already appears to be dividing a country in two.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro has launched a crusade against the governor of Brazil's largest state, São Paulo, over a Chinese-made vaccine that could ultimately help the country fight the pandemic that is infecting 5.3 million Brazilians and killing 157,000 people Has.
"The Brazilian people will not be guinea pigs … so I decided not to buy this vaccine," Bolsonaro wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday, refuting reports that the Ministry of Health would buy 46 million doses of the vaccine from the São Paulo governor recently named the "most promising".
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The vaccine in question CoronaVac is being developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac. In the railing against CoronaVac, Bolsonaro specifically quoted his country of origin. The episode fuels global fears that geopolitics – not science – will influence mass vaccination campaigns once COVID-19 vaccines get approved.
"Safest, Most Promising"
With the third highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, Brazil has become the ultimate test field for coronavirus vaccines. Companies behind five of the ten vaccines currently in late-stage Phase III trials are testing their candidates in the South American country because they need a high rate of infection to see if their experimental doses are working. Brazilian officials signaled their favorites early last week: Sinovac's candidate CoronaVac.
"The first results of the clinical study carried out in Brazil show that CoronaVac is the safest of all vaccines tested in the country, which has the best and most promising rates," said João Doria, the governor of São Paulo.
Doria – a vocal Bolsonaro critic – negotiated a partnership between Sinovac and the Butantan Institute, a Brazilian vaccine research center, to develop and test CoronaVac in Brazil.
The day after Doria declared CoronaVac "most promising", Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello announced that the federal government would buy 46 million doses of the vaccine from the Butantane Institute as part of a national vaccination program. The deal depends on the vaccine being approved by the federal regulator Anvisa.
The next day, Bolsonaro intervened.
Campaign against CoronaVac
Bolsonaro derided CoronaVac as "João Doria's Chinese vaccine" in response to a Facebook question, saying, "We certainly won't buy the Chinese vaccine."
Later that day, the Ministry of Health said in a statement that reports of 46 million cans purchases were a "misinterpretation" of Pazuello's statements. According to a statement, the ministry had merely signed a "non-binding memorandum of understanding" with the Butantane Institute to purchase the vaccines.
The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was seen here on September 28, has spoken out violently against a vaccine made in China because of its "origin". Andre Borges / Getty Images
In the meantime, Bolsonaro has continued its anti-CoronaVac campaign.
On Wednesday, the president posted a video of himself next to Pazuello. The health minister, who is currently suffering from the coronavirus, appeared to comply with the president's request to cancel the purchase, saying, "The boss commands and we obey."
Later that day, Bolsonaro told a radio show that Brazil "isn't buying a vaccine from China" because people "because of its origin" would not feel safe using it.
On Saturday, Anvisa, Brazil's health authority, approved the import of 6 million doses of CoronaVac for Phase III trials. Doria said it was "criminal" to abandon the late-stage vaccine investigation. He found an ally in Rodrigo Maia, the spokesman for the Brazilian lower legislative house, who urged Bolsonaro to reconsider his objections to the vaccine.
Bolsonaro had a mercury relationship with China. He began his tenure as a brazen China hawk – dubbed "Tropical Trump" – but warmed up as a trading partner in China during the pandemic, as exports to China were an economic lifeline for Brazil.
Gustavo Romero, professor at the University of Brasilia and coordinating doctor for tests of the Sinovac Biotech vaccine, shows the vaccine to journalists at the University Hospital in Brasilia in August 2020. Andressa Anholete / Getty Images
Recently, the Brazilian president has apparently turned more to the US in support of Trump's re-election and reportedly considering a ban on Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications maker, which the Trump administration sees as a security threat.
Bolsonaro's outright rejection of a Chinese vaccine – while reportedly the safest option yet – appears to be another political move. His government is instead backing a vaccine developed by UK-based AstraZeneca.
The Brazilian government has invested over $ 350 million in the UK vaccine, and AstraZeneca's doses are included in the national vaccination schedule.
Bolsonaro has accused Doria of playing a "political game" in supporting the Sinovac vaccine.
Doria has fought back, claiming that Sinovac's vaccine is "Brazil's vaccine" because the Butantane Institute is helping to develop it. He warned governments against "evaluating vaccines according to political or ideological criteria".
Doria isn't the only Brazilian governor affected by Bolsonaro's rhetoric. Maranhao Governor Flavio Dino said there was "general outrage" among heads of state.
Many see the president's refusal to view a promising vaccine as just the latest federal misstep.
A volunteer at the Emilio Ribas Institute for Infectious Diseases is vaccinated with a corona vaccine from the Chinese Sinovac.
Brazil recorded its first case of coronavirus on February 25, the day before the US detected its first human-to-human transmission. Since then, Brazil has accumulated one of the world's highest COVID-19 cases.
On Tuesday, a group of Brazilian scientists condemned Brazil's response to the pandemic in The Lancet, a highly regarded U.S. medical journal, arguing that the Brazilian federal government had failed to implement coordinated plans to fight the virus at any stage.
"The conclusion that Brazil has shown one of the worst responses to the pandemic is clear," the researchers wrote.
For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has emphasized that China remains committed to working with Brazil on vaccine development.
"China and Brazil have been working together on COVID-19," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press conference Thursday. “With Phase III of the clinical vaccine studies jointly initiated by both sides, progress is proceeding smoothly in Brazil. We believe that our collaboration will help people in China, Brazil, and around the world fight the pandemic. "
Brazil's internal debate over the Chinese vaccine could provide a microcosm of how the global vaccine race will develop in the months ahead.
Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow on Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Fortune this week that tensions between the US and China during COVID-19 have created ripe conditions for a “divided” vaccine world.
"You will find that OECD countries prefer US-made vaccines and many developing countries have no choice but to use Chinese-made vaccines," Huang said.
More needs to be read international reporting from capital::
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- Big Chocolate's child labor problem is far from resolved
- Impossible Foods is entering grocery stores outside of the United States for the first time
- Hong Kong has COVID-19 under control – it hasn't helped its flagship airline
- A UK drug trial deliberately expose young people to the coronavirus despite ethical concerns