Brazil hospital chain accused of hiding Covid deaths and giving unproven drugs

Group of whistleblowing doctors gave 10,000-page dossier to investigators last month with allegations against Prevent Senior

One of Brazil’s biggest healthcare providers has been accused of covering up coronavirus deaths, pressuring doctors to prescribe ineffective treatments, and testing unproven drugs on elderly patients as part of ideologically charged efforts to help the Brazilian government resist a Covid lockdown.

Prevent Senior, a health maintenance organization with a chain of hospitals and more than half a million members, is in the crosshairs of a congressional inquiry into Brazil’s coronavirus crisis and the highly controversial response of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Last month a group of whistleblowing doctors handed a 10,000-page dossier to investigators containing a series of incendiary allegations against the São Paulo-based firm that caters to senior citizens.

The dossier contained claims that elderly patients had been used as “human guinea pigs” for the testing of unproven Covid “remedies” without giving their full consent.

On Tuesday, the lawyer representing those whistleblowers, Bruna Morato, appeared before the Covid investigation in Brasília and made further allegations.

They included claims that:

  • Prevent Senior doctors were pressured into giving patients a cocktail of ineffective drugs, including the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine and the anti-parasitic ivermectin, in what was referred to as the “Covid kit”.

  • The decision to promote hydroxychloroquine as a supposedly effective Covid treatment was partly designed to help government ideologues who allegedly wanted to use such information to convince Brazilians there was no need to stay at home during the pandemic. “The economy couldn’t stop so they [the government] needed to find a way of giving hope to people who were leaving their homes. This hope had a name: hydroxychloroquine,” Morato alleged.

  • The use of such unproven medicines was also part of “a cost-reduction strategy” on the part of Prevent Senior. “It is much cheaper for a health provider to make certain medication available rather than actually admitting those patients,” Morato claimed.

  • Coronavirus deaths had been concealed in order not to compromise the results of Prevent Senior tests allegedly designed to show “Covid kit” drugs were effective against the disease. “This is fraud,” said the inquiry’s vice-president, Randolfe Rodrigues.

  • Prevent Senior doctors had supposedly received instructions to reduce the oxygen supply to seriously ill Covid patients who had been in intensive care for more than 10 or 14 days. “The expression I heard repeated on numerous occasions was: ‘Deaths free up beds too,’” Morto said.

In a statement Prevent Senior said it repudiated the “untruthful accusations” and had always operated within legal and ethical guidelines. The company denied it had ever hidden or under-reported deaths.

“Prevent Senior has always respected the autonomy of its doctors and has never fired its employees because of their technical convictions,” the company said.

The claims sparked a major outcry in Brazil, where nearly 600,000 people have died because of Covid – second only to the US.

Daniel Dourado, a public health expert and lawyer from the University of São Paulo, said: “This is an unprecedented scandal in Brazil.”

Dourado said much about the allegations against Prevent Senior still needed to be elucidated. A police investigation was needed. But there were disturbing signs that Prevent Senior may have formed an “alliance” with some government officials and informal advisers “to create a narrative that was used to trick the Brazilian population into becoming infected” with Covid. “These accusations are extremely serious,” Dourado said.

Chrystina Barros, a member of the Covid-19 taskforce at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University, agreed that the accusations, if confirmed, were grave.

“If it happened as is claimed, it is like telling patients … that they were not being treated by the doctors in front of them. [That actually] those doctors were following a script laid out by an administrative office that was motivated either by cost reduction … or political purposes,” Barros said.

“It will be up to investigators to define the extent of this [but] it is very serious.”

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Tom Phillips and Flávia Milhorance in Rio de Janeiro

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