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Brazil judge rules ex-health minister can remain silent in COVID inquiry

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By Ricardo Brito and Maria Carolina Marcello

BRASILIA, May 14 (Reuters) - A Brazilian Supreme Court justice on Friday ruled that former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello will not be obligated to answer questions that could incriminate him before a Senate panel investigating the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With more than 430,000 dead, Brazil has experienced the world's second-deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 after the United States.

Critics blame the severity of the death toll on a negligent response by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the severity of the disease and opposed lockdowns. Bolsonaro says he regrets the deaths, but Brazil must get back to business as usual.

Pazuello, who stepped down as health minister in March, is under scrutiny over accusations that his actions delayed the country's acquisition of vaccines.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Pazuello failed to take up Pfizer Inc on its offer of COVID-19 vaccines last year because he believed Brazil should rely on AstraZeneca and Sinovac shots made domestically.

Brazil only agreed to buy Pfizer vaccines in March, more than six months after the company initially approached the Brazilian government offering immunizations. The country's vaccine rollout has been slow, with regular shortages of shots.

Pazuello did not respond to a request for comment.

The former health minister and three star Army general is set to appear before the special Senate committee on Wednesday.

Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski on Friday issued a decision that Pazuello has the right to remain silent before the committee, due to the possibility that he could be jailed if he lied or otherwise incriminated himself.

Pazuello could cite the decision as a means to avoid answering any questions, although it does not necessarily exempt him from speaking about matters that would not implicate him.

The Solicitor General's office, which represents the Bolsonaro administration, had submitted the request that Pazuello not be required to speak at the hearing.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito and Maria Carolina Marcello, writing by Jake Spring, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)