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Bolsonaro Celebrates Suspension Of Chinese-Made Coronavirus Vaccine In Brazil

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been accused of playing politics with the pandemic. This week, his government enraged scientists by briefly suspending trials of a Chinese-made vaccine. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Stopping clinical trials for a vaccine is not unusual. It is unusual to celebrate. Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, was delighted when trials of China's CoronaVac was suspended in Brazil this week. That's another victory for me, he said. Medical professionals are appalled.

SERGIO CIMERMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Bolsonaro is politicizing the search for a vaccine," says Dr. Sergio Cimerman, one of Brazil's top infectious disease specialists.

About 10,000 Brazilian volunteers are taking part in the CoronaVac trials. Brazil's government health regulator issued the suspension order Monday after a volunteer died. Police are reportedly treating his death as suicide.

Brazilian scientists conducting the tests think suspending them was wrong.

DIMAS COVAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Dimas Covas heads the Butantan Institute, a prestigious research organization carrying out the trials jointly with the vaccine's Chinese manufacturer, Sinovac. Covas says the trials were stopped because of a serious adverse event.

COVAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "But it had nothing whatever to do with the vaccine. Government regulators had that information," he says.

COVAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "By suspending the trials, they fostered fear and uncertainty and also anti-Chinese sentiments," says Covas.

COVAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "For what," he asks. The question now is, did Bolsonaro bring political pressure on the government health regulator, even though it's supposed to be independent? The regulator denies it. The president's critics think he did. Bolsonaro's been speaking out against CoronaVac for weeks. This is partly a power game. The Chinese made vaccines being promoted by a rival, Joao Doria, governor of Brazil's most important state, Sao Paolo. He's a potential presidential contender at the next election.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).

REEVES: Bolsonaro supporters have taken to the streets, protesting Doria and his vaccination trial. On Monday, Doria announced that 120,000 doses of CoronaVac vaccine would soon arrive from China. Bolsonaro's opponents say it's no coincidence that trials were suspended on that same day.

Brazil has, so far, logged more than 162,000 COVID deaths. That's more than anywhere except the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: When the pandemic began, Jair Bolsonaro dismissed COVID as a little flu. He argued against shutting down the economy, yet he also often refused to socially distance and wear a mask and ended up catching the virus. Bolsonaro backs a different vaccine developed by the British, but he also stresses vaccination is not mandatory. He's still playing down the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Everyone has to die sometime," he says. "We have to stop being a country of sissies," he says. Although, he used a Portuguese term with homophobic overtones. Today, after a media outcry, Brazil's health regulator announced CoronaVac trials can resume. This won't end suspicions that Bolsonaro is more interested in keeping power than saving people.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.