RIO DE JANEIRO — The plot twists of a coronavirus vaccine kickback scandal that has rattled Brazil’s capital have been worthy of a reality TV show.
The main stage has been a congressional hearing room, where scores of witnesses have been shedding light on the government’s chaotic response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 520,000 in the country.
There has been plenty of yelling, a bit of crying and a fair amount of pearl clutching as the audacity and scope of a scheme by health ministry officials to solicit bribes from vaccine dealers have come into focus. The outrage drew tens of thousands of Brazilians to protest across several cities on Saturday, the third large wave of demonstrations in recent weeks.
Much about the scandal, which federal prosecutors are investigating, remains unclear and in dispute. But the widening inquiry is likely to pose a major threat to President Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election bid next year — and perhaps even to his ability to serve out the remainder of his term.
At the urging of a Supreme Court justice, the attorney general’s office on Friday opened an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s role in the vaccine corruption scheme. The president is under scrutiny in a deal to secure 20 million doses of a vaccine that had not yet completed clinical trials or been approved by regulators. He is accused of overlooking a warning that there were some irregularities in the deal.
Additionally, a group of 100 legislators from a broad range of parties presented draft impeachment articles earlier in the week outlining scores of alleged crimes. They range from the president’s actions to weaken democratic institutions to accounts of negligence and malfeasance that have stymied Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccine campaign.
Opposition members of Congress say the vaccine scandal has the potential to galvanize street demonstrations of the kind that led to the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
“Every crime committed by the president is serious, but this one is even more serious because it involves lives,” said Joice Hasselmann, a member of Congress from São Paulo who was among Mr. Bolsonaro’s fiercest defenders until they had a falling out in 2019. “Brazil can’t stand another year with Bolsonaro.”
Mr. Bolsonaro has not disputed that senior officials in his government may have acted unlawfully in vaccine negotiations. But he called efforts to pin the wrongdoing on him unfair.
“I have no way of knowing what’s happening in the ministries,” he told supporters on Monday. “We did nothing wrong.”
On Saturday, the rage over the latest revelations was palpable as tens of thousands took to the streets in a third round of recent demonstrations against the Bolsonaro government.
In downtown Rio de Janeiro, thousands marched to the beat of drums and chanted “out with Bolsonaro!” as activists delivered fiery speeches from sound trucks. A man held a large cardboard sign that said: “The people only take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic when the government is more dangerous than the virus.”
Amanda Machado, 45, a veterinarian, wore a grim reaper costume and held a replica of a bloodied severed head with Mr. Bolsonaro’s face plastered on it.
“This represents my desire,” she said, holding up the gory prop.
Ms. Machado blamed Mr. Bolsonaro for the deaths of colleagues, friends and relatives who succumbed to the virus while the president repeatedly minimized the risk it posed, sowed doubts about vaccines and promoted large gatherings.
“Being out here represents a risk,” she said. “But we accomplish nothing by staying at home.”
The vaccine scandal began brewing in June as members of a Congressional commission established in April became suspicious about the terms of a $316 million deal the government struck to purchase 20 million doses of the Indian Covaxin Covid-19 vaccine.
The purchase was unusual because Brazil for months had ignored repeated offers by Pfizer, which offered millions of early doses of its vaccine. The hasty approval of the Covaxin deal was also confounding because the vaccine had not yet completed clinical trials and it had not been authorized by Brazil’s health regulator. Its price tag was exponentially higher than the price the manufacturer had announced earlier this year. And the sale was brokered by a middleman.
In late June, a lawmaker allied with Mr. Bolsonaro, Luis Claudio Miranda, wore a bulletproof vest to offer explosive testimony to Congress. He told lawmakers that he and his brother, Luis Ricardo Miranda, a health ministry official, met with Mr. Bolsonaro privately in March to warn the president about irregularities in the Covaxin deal. Lawmakers heading a Covid-19 special committee said there’s no evidence that Mr. Bolsonaro asked law enforcement officials to investigate the allegations.
Days later, Luiz Paulo Dominguetti, an executive from a medical supplies company, told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that the head of logistics at the country’s health ministry, Roberto Ferreira Dias, had sought to negotiate a deal to buy AstraZeneca vaccines that included a $1 per dose kickback.
Then Mr. Dominguetti stunned lawmakers by asserting at a congressional hearing that Mr. Miranda, the congressman who had blown the whistle on the Covaxin deal, played a role in negotiating the dodgy AstraZeneca purchase. Mr. Miranda has denied wrongdoing.
As anger over the allegations mounted, Mr. Bolsonaro fired Mr. Dias, the health ministry official, who has denied he sought bribes. The ministry is now seeking to get out of the Covaxin deal.
Humberto Costa, a senator who sits on the Covid-19 special committee, said the scandal has undermined Mr. Bolsonaro’s image as a fundamentally honest politician, which was crucial to the far-right leader’s victory in 2018.
“The congressional investigation has strongly undermined the anti-corruption image of the government and the president,” Mr. Costa said.
As the human and economic toll of the pandemic has devastated Brazilian families over the past 15 months, Mr. Bolsonaro’s base has shrunk precipitously, surveys show. A poll released by the public opinion research firm Ipec late last month suggested that Mr. Bolsonaro would be trounced by his main political rival, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, if the vote were held today.
Guilherme Casarões, a political analyst and professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, said that the president’s deepening political isolation has made him more radical, rather than conciliatory.
“This can leave him in a more virulent situation” that could lead to a democratic breakdown, Mr. Casarões said. “He has already given clear indications that he does not respect institutions, from the Supreme Court to Congress.”
Danielle Oliveira, an attorney in Rio de Janeiro, said she had refrained from taking to the streets during the pandemic for fear of catching the virus, but she decided to join the throngs on Saturday after receiving the first dose of a vaccine.
“Impeachment at this point does not look likely,” said Ms. Oliveira, 47, who wore a double mask and a face shield to the demonstration. “But if we stay on the streets that could change.”
As more lawmakers have come around to support impeachment, the president has begun to warn of fraud in next year’s presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in October 2022. Mr. Bolsonaro has suggested, without presenting evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting machines can be easily rigged, and that an electoral loss next year would be the result of fraud.
Mr. Bolsonaro has lashed out against the congressional inquiry, calling lawmakers “bandits,” and saying talk about impeachment is nonsense.
“There’s no point in provoking us, in making things up, defaming us, attacking us 24 hours a day, because they won’t accomplish anything,” he said last weekend. “Only one thing will remove me from Brasília: God.”