Bolsonaro fires official after graft claims as impeachment calls grow

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro walks before a ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 30 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired a health official on Wednesday after he reportedly asked for a bribe in a coronavirus vaccine deal, the latest graft accusation to rock the government and spark fresh calls for the president's impeachment.

With over half a million COVID-19 deaths, Brazilians are fuming over missed opportunities to buy vaccines. A Senate probe has unearthed alleged corruption, with health ministry insiders and pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers allegedly seeking to fast-track and overpay for an Indian vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech.

On Wednesday, when Brazil recorded 2,081 new COVID-19 deaths, federal prosecutors and the federal police launched a criminal probe into the Indian vaccine deal, according to a document seen by Reuters.

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The scandal has triggered fresh calls for impeachment against Bolsonaro, a divisive right-winger, who has underplayed the severity of the pandemic, railed against lockdowns, pushed unproven remedies and sowed vaccine doubts.

On Wednesday, lawmakers from across the political spectrum, social groups and lawyers filed a collective impeachment request, the latest in over 100 similar filings that have gone unheeded by the speaker of the lower house of Congress.

Bolsonaro and Bharat have denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday, he came out swinging against the Senate probe.

"They can't touch us," he said in televised comments during a visit to the city of Ponta Pora on the Paraguayan border. "It won't be with lies ... that they will get us out of here."

He did not comment on the dismissal of the official, Health Ministry logistics chief Roberto Ferreira Dias, formalized in Wednesday's official gazette, or the allegations against him.

On Tuesday, Brazil suspendedthe Indian vaccine contract, worth 1.6 billion reais ($321 million). On Wednesday, the country's health regulator suspended its emergency use application, citing incomplete paperwork provided by the intermediary selling the shot. read more

Newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported late on Tuesday that Dias had suggested a bribe of one dollar per dose at a dinner to discuss a different order of 400 million vaccines, citing a representative from a medical supply company.

The health ministry said the dismissal of Dias was decided on Tuesday morning, but did not address the allegations.

Dias could not be reached immediately for comment.

Leaders of the Senate inquiry, who are already probing alleged irregularities in a separate vaccine contract, said they would summon witnesses regarding the fresh accusations.

The head of the government coalition in the lower house of Congress, lawmaker Ricardo Barros, who was cited by Folha as having suggested Dias for his post in January 2019, denied he had done so.

"He was not my choice," Barros, a former health minister and power broker in the centrist bloc that has shielded Bolsonaro from calls for impeachment, wrote on social media.

($1 = 4.98 reais)

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Reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo, Pedro Fonseca and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo Editing by Brad Haynes, Alistair Bell and Marguerita Choy

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