BRASILIA (Reuters) -President Jair Bolsonaro accused syringe makers on Wednesday of pushing up their prices after the government failed to buy hundreds of millions of syringes via auction for its COVID-19 vaccination drive, leading it to requisition surplus supplies.
"Prices soared after the Health Ministry expressed an interest in buying syringes," Bolsonaro wrote on social media, adding that the government had suspended buying until prices return to normal.
Brazil's three main syringe manufacturers met with Bolsonaro on Tuesday and agreed that each would supply 10 million, along with needles to cover the initial stages of the country's planned vaccinations.
"It was a requisition order and the companies have to obey it. This was almost a confiscation, but the government will pay," said Paulo Henrique Fraccaro, head of Brazil's medical supplies and equipment industry lobby group ABIMO.
Fraccaro said the government decided to requisition syringe supplies after it failed to draw bids last week at an electronic auction session. It had sought to buy 331 million syringes but purchased just 8 million, or 2.5% of its target, after it set reference prices that were below companies' bids.
The Health Ministry offered 13 centavos (.13 reais) per syringe in its Nov. 29 tender, but most companies were asking for 22-48 centavos (.22-.48 reais), depending on the characteristics, Fraccaro said.
While prices for the requisitioned syringes had not been agreed, Fraccaro said the government planned to open a second tender in one or two weeks with prices "adjusted" to today's manufacturing reality.
Brazil has the worst COVID-19 death toll outside the United States, but has lagged neighbors Chile and Argentina in starting inoculations against the new coronavirus.
Bolsonaro wrote that Brazil's states and municipalities have enough supplies to begin vaccinations, which are expected to start by the end of the month.
In a parallel move, Brazil's trade authority Camex slashed from 16% to zero the import tax on syringe and needle products. The exemption extends until June 30.
Camex also said it had suspended anti-dumping procedures against syringes imported from China, a day after extending for six more months a zero import tax provision for 298 medical products essential in the fight against COVID-19.
(Reporting by Eduardo Simões; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Mark Heinrich)