Feature: Bharat Biotech’s Dubai MoU opens new line of probe

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa
Sao Paulo, July 12 (KMS): Bharat Biotech’s contract with Brazil, already suspended and under several investigations, is facing new scrutiny with the revelations that the Hyderabad-based company had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its Brazilian representative and a Dubai firm, which is not traceable.

The MoU, obtained by Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, was sent by the Indian company’s Brazil representative, Precisa Medicamentos, to that country’s ministry of health as a proof of their partnership. But the presence of a third company and the date of the agreement has come to the notice of the parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI) which is digging deeper into the scandal involving the planned supply of 20 million doses of Covaxin in a $300 million deal.

The tripartite MoU, signed on November 24, 2020, four days after the first meeting between Bharat Biotech’s top brass, their Brazilian representatives and health ministry officials, says that Envixia Pharmaceuticals LLC, a company registered in the United Arab Emirates, “would be responsible for providing support for all activities related to the registration and commercialization of Covaxin in Brazilian territory”.

While the role of Precisa Medicamentos in the deal is known – and being probed – this is the first time that the name Envixia, in a crucial role, has cropped up in this scandal.

As per the document, released by Folha de Sao Paulo, the MoU proposes a future contract between three “parties”. While mails sent to Bharat Biotech and Precisa Medicamentos by The Wire remained unanswered, the executive director of the Brazilian firm, Emmanuela Medrades, confirmed to Folha de Sao Paulo that the Dubai company was “indeed” part of the document.

In the MoU, obtained and published by Folha de Sao Paulo, Envxia is a company registered in the International Free Zone Area.

“Envixia’s participation is normal. It was chosen by Bharat [Biotech] to explore the possibilities for the vaccine in Brazil and the United Arab Emirates,” said Medrades, who had travelled to India in January 2021 to sign a contract with Bharat Biotech and also put her name on the pact with the Brazilian government on February 25, 2021.

The clarification from Medrades says little and the executive will surely face a barrage of questions when she appears at the senate hearing on Tuesday (July 13). Precisa Medicamentos is the main target of senators who are looking at its documents with a magnifying glass. The appearance of the MoU, say sources in Brasilia, have opened two new lines of investigation. First, how did the representatives of Bharat Biotech attend an official meeting before signing an MoU with the company? And secondly, what exactly is the role of Envixia in the deal?

As an invoice for advance payment of $45 million sent by Madison Biotech, an offshore firm in Singapore which is not part of the Covaxin contract, has already made the probe follow the money, the appearance of another company, which can’t be located, has also triggered the curiosity of investigators.

The Mumbai connection 

Envixia Pharmaceuticals LLC is so elusive that even Google can’t find it.

An internet search for the company’s name shows no results. But inquiries by The Wire suggest the company probably has links with a Mumbai-based firm, Invex Healthcare, whose owner is being investigated by the Uttarakhand Police in the fake COVID-19 tests scandal during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.

In the Memorandum of Understanding signed on November 24, 2020, Envixia Pharmaceuticals LLC is mentioned as a company in “International Free Zone Authority, Fujairah – UAE having its registered office at Kidnah, Block A, Plot 4, Fujairah – UAE.”

The publicly available records of the International Free Zone Authority (IFZA), located in Dubai Digital Park, show nothing for Envixia. The records of Dubai Financial Services Authority and National Economic Register, Ministry of Economy, United Arab Emirates, also show no results for this name. The Wire sent a mail to IFZA, asking if a company named Envixia was ever registered with the authority but got no response.

The details in the MoU also raise suspicions if Envixia is a real company. At the bottom of the document, there are three signatures. On behalf of Bharat Biotech, it is signed by Dr V. Krishna Mohan whose title is written as whole-time director; the witness signature appears to read “Apoorv Kumar”, who, as per other documents seen by The Wire, is a top executive of the company. In the middle column of the MoU, sits the signature of Francisco Maximiano, the president of Precisa Medicamentos. In the third column, the MoU is “signed and delivered on behalf of Envixia Pharmaceuticals LLC” by Anudesh Goyal whose title is written as general manager. Unlike the other two columns, there is no date and company stamp below Goyal’s name. The witness signature in this column appears to be “A Gavande”.

In the MoU, below the signature of Anudesh Goyal, there is no date and stamp of the company, raising more doubts about its existence.

The Wire sent a set of questions on Friday morning to Bharat Biotech and Precisa Medicamentos, asking about their relationship with Envixia and Anudesh Goyal’s role in the supply of vaccines to Brazil, but got no response. An executive of the media wing of Bharat Biotech confirmed the receipt of questions and promised to “forward to (persons) concern (sic) and revert”, but there was no reply, as with the previous queries sent to the company by The Wire in the past few weeks.

It is hard to understand why a company of the size of Bharat Biotech would not respond to a few basic questions about their business partner, especially when their multi-million-dollar contract with Brazil faces a threat of cancellation. But, irrespective of the company’s silence, the names of Envixia and Anudesh Goyal are now on the radar of investigators in the burgeoning scandal.

The trail to Kumbh  

For many pharmaceutical executives The Wire spoke to, the name Envixia doesn’t ring a bell. But Anudesh Goyal is not an unknown quantity in pharmaceutical circles in Mumbai and Dubai, where he might have participated at the “Arab Health” event held at Dubai World Trade Centre in January 2020. A Mumbai-based company, Invex Healthcare, which took part in this Dubai gig is headed by one Anudesh Goyal who has his office in Andheri. On its website, Invex Health describes itself as a “fully integrated pharmaceutical company with services extended from delivering pharmaceutical products to pharma mergers and acquisitions”.

On his LinkedIn profile, Anudesh Goyal is listed as the “Director of Invex Health Private Limited”, who is with the company full-time since December 2018, when it was founded. Of the four employees – present and former – on the company’s LinkedIn profile, one is Anagha Gavande who worked as a business development specialist from November 2019 to February 2021.

And the witness signature below Goyal’s in the MoU appears to be “A Gavande”, similar to the name of Anagha Gavande who was employed with the Mumbai firm in November 2020, when the MoU was signed.  The Wire sent an email to the address on the company’s website, asking about Goyal’s relationship with Envixia and Bharat Biotech. Two calls made from two different numbers on the mobile phone number of Invex were declined after a few rings. A copy of the mail sent to Anudesh Goyal, was also sent to a WhatsApp number of the company. The message was delivered and seen – indicated by blue ticks – but not replied for more than 24 hours.

The Invex angle has given a completely new twist to the Covaxin story in Brazil. As already reported in the Indian media, a person named Anudesh Goyal has been interrogated by the Special Investigation Team of Uttarakhand Police for “mediating” a pact between two firms which are accused of serious irregularities in COVID-19 tests during the Kumbh Mela.

A senior official of Uttarakhand Police confirmed to The Wire that Anudesh Goyal, whose company is called Invex Health, has been questioned. “We can’t say if he runs a company called Envixia but he certainly has some business in Dubai,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Our focus is the irregularity committed in testing during the Kumbh Mela,” said the official, adding that they had no instructions to look into the Covaxin case.

But based on the MoU document and their own investigation, the Brazilian media published on Friday a couple of reports establishing a connection between Covaxingate in Brazil and the Kumbh Mela fraud in India. The common link in the two cases, as per the reports, being Anudesh Goyal, who hasn’t responded to messages despite repeated attempts by The Wire and Folha de Sao Paulo reporters.

The price of uncertainty   

The vaccine controversy, which has made ordinary Brazilians go to the streets in huge numbers to demand President Jair Bolsonaro’s removal from power, has also tarnished the image of Bharat Biotech. The revelations that the company sent an invoice of $45 million into an offshore account without delivering a single dose has damaged its reputation and also made the Covaxin contract the focus of the senate probe. Now, with revelations about a fourth company – from Dubai – the MoU may get as much attention as the Singapore invoice and the contract between the Indian firm and its Brazilian representative.

In the city of Sao Paulo, the biggest parties of the left and right came together to demand removal of Bolsonaro. Photo: Cuca da UNE

With their pointed questioning of government officials, the senators leading the probe have been trying to sniff the money trail in CovaxinGate, which many of them have accused to be a “grand corruption scheme” to buy the most expensive vaccine. Bharat Biotech has claimed that it always offered to sell Covaxin for $15 to $20 to international buyers. But the senate probe is looking at an official document that says that the Indian firm had offered to sell its vaccine for $10 a dose to the Brazilian government with the possibility of dropping the price further.

In a meeting held on November 20, 2020, four days before the MoU was signed between the three companies, Bharat Biotech offered a price of $10, as per an official document sent by the ministry of health to the commission. First revealed by Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, the “Minutes of the Meeting” show that three local representatives of Bharat Biotech attended the meeting in person, while four of its executives had joined via a video link. On the Brazilian government side, Elcio Franco, then executive secretary of the ministry was present with six other officials.

A Minutes of the Meeting document from the ministry of health shows the Indian company made an offer of $10 per dose in its first meeting with the Brazilian government in November 2020. Photo: Screenshot of TV Senado

“The price of the vaccine is $10 per dose, which, due to the eventual purchase of a large amounts of doses, could be reduced and would be open to negotiation,” says the document, which lists the commercial and legal aspects of the negotiations.

The document, which was put on a large screen in the senate chamber on July 7, shows the names of Francisco Maximiano and Emmanuela Medrades attending the meeting on behalf of Precisa Medicamentos. For the Indian company, Dr Raches Ella, Sai Prasad, Venkat Hariharan and Apoorv Kumar had joined. While senators from the government side have claimed that the offer of $10 per dose was never made formally, the official document suggests otherwise. The first time that Bharat Biotech mentioned the price of $15 was on January 12, 2021, the day it signed a contract with its Brazilian representative and gave Brazil just three days to accept the offer. The agreement between Brazil and Bharat Biotech was signed for $300 million. The cost to Brazil would be $100 million less, say senators, if the initial offer had been maintained.

The question of how and why the cost of the vaccine went up was the focus of inquiry this week. On Wednesday, as the health ministry’s documents was on the screen in the senate, several senators accused that the extra $100 million in the deal was the amount to be swindled.

With the document still on display, Senator Renan Calheiros, the rapporteur of the commission, trained his guns directly at Bolsonaro. “The Covaxin vaccine was overpriced…This is perhaps the most important finding of the CPI. While rejecting the vaccines from Pfizer and others, the President asked the Prime Minister of India to send 20 million doses…The President not only knew about the swindler’s deal he participated in it…,” said Senator Calheiros in a rare outburst at the session broadcast live and watched by millions.

Senator Renan Calheiros, the CPI rapporteur, sees a definite scandal in the rise of Covaxin price from $10 to $15 and blames Bolsonaro for the scandal. Photo: Pedro França/Agência Senado

Bolsonaro’s image, already in tatters, has taken a severe beating with CovaxinGate. A poll released on Thursday showed that his rejection rate has crossed 51%, a new record.