A Supreme Court judge in Brazil late on Friday opened a criminal investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to allegations of potential corruption in a health ministry contract to buy 20 million (2 crore) doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by India’s Bharat Biotech, AP reported.

The comparatively high prices for Covaxin, despite failing to obtain regulatory clearance, drew prosecutors’ attention to the deal signed in February. To buy the vaccines, the Brazilian health ministry will have to pay $320 million (Rs 2,375 crore approximately) to Precisa Medicamentos, Bharat Biotech’s intermediary in Brazil. Thus, each dose of Covaxin will cost $15 (approximately Rs 1,100).

This was significantly higher than what the health ministry paid for American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s vaccine, which had obtained regulatory approval. Last year, Bolsonaro had also ignored Pfizer’s offer to supply vaccines and repeatedly raised doubts about its efficacy, reports said.

As allegations of irregularities surfaced, the government on June 29 suspended the contract.

On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber gave the authorities 90 days to collect evidence in the case, Reuters reported. Authorities will investigate whether Bolsonaro committed the crime of “prevarication” – delaying or refraining from action required as part of a public official’s duty for reasons of personal interest. Weber did not dismiss the possibility of prosecutors looking into other potential wrongdoing in the contract.

Logistics department official Luís Ricardo Miranda had informed prosecutors that he was under pressure by Alex Lial Marinho, an aide to one of Bolsonaro’s closest allies, to purchase the Bharat Biotech vaccine.

Miranda testified before the Senate committee investigating the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on June 25 along with his brother, Luis Miranda, a lawmaker allied with Bolsonaro. Luis Miranda even wore a bulletproof vest when he went testify before the panel.

Both of them said they warned the president about irregularities in the Covaxin deal in March. Bolsonaro reportedly assured them that he would report their concerns to the federal police. But, the Senate committee has said there was no evidence that Bolsonaro asked the police to investigate the allegations.

Since the scandal broke, both Bolsonaro and Bharat Biotech have denied any wrongdoing. On June 28, the president also said he cannot follow everything in the government, adding that he trusts his ministers.

Anti-Bolsonaro protests

More than 5 lakh people have died in Brazil from the coronavirus disease, the second-highest toll in the world after the United States. The crisis was also exacerbated by a slow vaccine rollout.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Brazil demanding the impeachment of Bolsonaro, AFP reported. This was the third round of demonstrations against his government.

“This government has killed more than 5,00,000 people through its spurious decisions, fake news, lies and now this absurd corruption scandal over the vaccines,” said Lima Mendes, a 47-year-old physician protesting in Rio de Janeiro.

Protestors in the cities of Sao Paulo, Belem, Recife and Maceio carried placards reading, “Genocidal Bolsonaro”, “Impeachment Already” and “Yes to the Vaccines”.