Bharat’s Covaxin Vaccine’s Promising Results Are Marred by Corruption Claims in Brazil
A COVID-19 outreach program in Karnataka state, India.

Despite a series of controversies, Bharat Biotech, which produces Indian homegrown vaccine Covaxin, hopes for World Health Organization (WHO) emergency use listing (EUL) soon, following last week’s publication of its promising Phase 3 results.

The vaccine was given emergency authorisation by the Indian government in early January – even before it had concluded a Phase 3 trial or published its Phase 2 results.  It has since been accused of irregularities during its Phase 3 trial and of being involved in a corrupt deal in Brazil.

However, Bharat finally published a preprint of its Phase 3 trial results via the BMJ’s reputable preprint service last week, which showed that Covaxin had 93.4% protection against severe COVID-19, and 65.2% protection against the Delta variant. 

The trial involved 25,798 people between the ages of 18 to 98 years in 25 sites across India. But trialists at the Bhopal site reported that they had been paid $10 to take part and some had been unable to read the consent form as they were illiterate, according to media reports

While these results still have to be peer-reviewed, the company is in the process of submitting “rolling data” to the WHO, according to the WHO EUL status report.

Over the weekend, Bharat company chairperson and managing director Dr Krishna Ella said that that the trial results had established India and developing world countries’ ability to “focus on innovation and novel product development”.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has worked with the company to develop the vaccine, and Balram Bhargava, ICMR Director and India’s Secretary of the Department of Health Research, welcomed the results.

Describing the trial as India’s largest COVID-19 Phase 3 clinical trial, Bhargava said that Covaxin “has consolidated the position of Indian academia and industry in the global arena”.

Corruption Allegations in Brazil

However, the company has also been embroiled in a corruption scandal in Brazil, which resulted in the suspension last week of a 20 million-dose order of the vaccine worth $324-million pending the outcome of investigations. The allegations of irregularities reach as high as President Jair Bolsanaro, according to Quartz.

The issue was raised by India’s opposition Congress Party last Friday, which accused the Modi government of being “conspicuously silent” about the deal with Brazil despite the fact that public money had been used to develop the vaccine.

“Taxpayers’ money was put into this and which is why we have a right to question: what has happened with that money and why is the government conspicuously silent on it?” according to Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate, who claimed that the ICMR was to get 5% from the sale of the vaccine.

Part of the Brazilian scandal centres on a company linked to Bharat, which is apparently tried to act as a ‘broker’, selling the vaccines on to the Brazilian government at the vastly inflated price of $15 per dose. This is more expensive than the Pfizer vaccine, which has WHO EUL.

A whistleblower in the Brazilian Health Department told a Senate panel that he was facing pressure from an aide of a close ally of Bolsonaro to sign a contract for the vaccines at a massively inflated price, according to the Guardian

Ministry head of imports Luis Ricardo Miranda, told the panel that he had not approved an import license for the vaccine because an invoice for the first shipment asking for upfront payment had been sent by a company not mentioned in the contract.

Wagner de Campos Rosário, of the federal office of the comptroller general, said in a press briefing reported by CNN Brasil last week that the deal had been suspended “as a simple preventive measure, since there are complaints that could not be explained well by the complainant”. He expected the investigation to take around 10 days.

However, both Bharat and Bolsonaro have denied wrongdoing.

Image Credits: Flickr – Trinity Care Foundation, Flickr – Trinity Care Foundation.

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