Bolsonaro turns to military allies to set Brazil’s COVID-19 vaccine policy

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is moving to assert control of the nation’s independent health regulator, Anvisa, a move some health experts fear will politicize the agency and give the president, one of the world’s most prominent coronavirus skeptics, free rein over vaccine approvals.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in the middle. /VCG

Bolsonaro on Nov. 12 nominated a retired soldier, Jorge Luiz Kormann, to take one of Anvisa’s five director posts. Kormann, a former lieutenant-colonel with no background in medicine or vaccine development, would lead the unit charged with green-lighting vaccines. If he is confirmed by Brazil’s Senate, as is expected, Bolsonaro allies would occupy three of Anvisa’s five directorships, giving them a majority in all decisions taken by the agency.

“Anvisa is being stacked with directors who are allied to Bolsonaro’s denialist and irresponsible stance on public health,” said Alexandre Padilha, a former health minister and leftist federal lawmaker. “He wants to pass on a political message that only the vaccines he wants will be incorporated into the public health system.”

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen current and former officials, state governors and lawmakers about Bolsonaro’s plans for Anvisa, an internationally respected regulator whose role in approving drugs, devices and treatments is similar to that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Many said they worry the president’s growing influence at Anvisa is politicizing the regulator, which will sign off on various different vaccines being tested in Brazil.

Although they cited no specific evidence, some fear that Bolsonaro, with his eye on re-election in 2022, could use Anvisa approvals to speed vaccines to allies and withhold them from rivals.

Others fear that Bolsonaro’s hardening opposition to coronavirus vaccines will seep into Anvisa, undermine its credibility and stoke growing anti-vaccine fervor in Latin America’s largest country.

Public support for COVID-19 vaccinations is falling across Brazil, according to a November survey of residents of four major cities by polling agency Datafolha.

In São Paulo, for example, 72 percent of respondents said they would get vaccinated, down 7 points from the previous month, while support for mandatory immunization fell 14 points to 58 percent.

(With input from agencies)