Bolsonaro readies health minister swap as Brazil's outbreak worsens

·2-min read
Ceremony to announce a mass coronavirus disease (COVID-19) immunization program, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello confirmed on Monday that President Jair Bolsonaro is weighing candidates to replace him, preparing to appoint the fourth person in a year in the role as COVID-19 cases rage out of control.

Pazuello's job is on the line after the most deadly week in Brazil since the coronavirus pandemic began. More than 279,000 Brazilians have died in a worsening outbreak that killed more people in Brazil than any other nation last week.

"The President is thinking of a replacement in the ministry and is evaluating names," Pazuello told reporters in a news conference. He said he would not resign and that the change could come "in the short-, medium- or long-term."

Pazuello, an active duty Army general without a medical degree, has been criticized for lacking public health expertise and supporting Bolsonaro's push to use unproven drugs to fight COVID-19, while downplaying the need for social distancing.

Pazuello's two predecessors resigned in roughly the span of a month last year, in part because as physicians they would not fully endorse treating COVID-19 patients with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Pazuello expanded access to hydroxychloroquine, which is unproven as a COVID-19 treatment, and allowed it to be prescribed to virtually anyone testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

His failure to secure timely supplies of vaccines for the country has led to calls for an inquiry in Congress, while the Supreme Court is investigating his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the northern city of Manaus, which ran out of oxygen.

Bolsonaro met on Sunday with Ludhmila Hajjar, a doctor who has been at the forefront of COVID-19 treatment and research in Brazil, but disagreed on how to approach the crisis.

Hajjar told CNN Brasil that she declined the job, saying that as a doctor she had to "remain above ideology."

Hajjar has publicly criticized the government's COVID-19 strategy and contradicted the far-right president's insistence on the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients.

Brazil has vaccinated too few people and the result has been "catastrophic," Hajjar, a cardiologist, said in a recent interview.

"Brazil is doing everything wrong in this pandemic and it is now paying the price," she told Sao Paulo newspaper Opçao.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito, Maria Carolina Marcello and Lissandra Paraguassu; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paul Simao, Marguerita Choy and Dan Grebler)