Brazil's Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber late on Friday authorised an investigation of President Jair Bolsonaro by the top prosecutor's office, or PGR, for dereliction of duty in the process of procuring an Indian Covid-19 vaccine, according to a copy of the decision seen by Reuters.
The president has been implicated in allegations of irregularities surrounding a 1.6 billion reais ($316 million) contract signed in February for 20 million doses with a Brazilian intermediary for the vaccine's maker, Bharat Biotech.
A Brazilian Senate commission investigating the administration's handling of the pandemic has cited suspicions of overpricing and corruption related to the contract. After allegations of irregularities surfaced, the government suspended the contract.
Brazil has suffered the world's second highest number of COVID-19 deaths.
Brazilian federal prosecutors and the comptroller general's office, or CGU, are also separately investigating the alleged irregularities in the deal. The case allegedly involves the government's chief whip in the lower house of Congress, Ricardo Barros, according to lawmakers.
Bolsonaro and Barros denied any wrongdoing.
The investigation of the president by the PGR had to be formally authorized by the Supreme Court. In her decision, Justice Weber gave authorities 90 days for collection of evidence pertaining to the case.
Bharat Biotech has said it followed a “step-by-step" approach for the regulatory approval and supply contract of its COVID-19 vaccine in Brazil, and that it has not received advance payments from the Brazilian health ministry.
This followed an announcement by Brazil’s health minister that the country will suspend its $324 million contract for 20 million doses of Bharat Biotech’s vaccine after whistleblowers went public with alleged irregularities in the deal.
“In the specific case of procurement of Covaxin by the Ministry of Health, Brazil, since the first meetings during Nov 2020 until June 29, a step-by-step approach has been followed towards contracts, and regulatory approvals, during this eight-month-long process," Bharat Biotech said in a statement.
“EUA received on June 4. As of June 29, 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," said the Hyderabad-based vaccine maker.
Bharat Biotech says reports in the media over the past few weeks had “misrepresented" the procurement process of Covaxin in Brazil and other countries. “The procurement process for COVID-19 vaccines and several vaccines for routine immunization follow a common process which is widely accepted, and established in Industry," said Bharat Biotech.
(With Reuters inputs)