Peru’s political elite ensnared in ‘Vacuna-gate’ scandal

Former president among nearly 500 people who received early Covid-19 vaccines on the quiet

Former Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra speaks to the press in Lima on December 1st last after meeting a congressional commission to respond to bribery allegations. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

Former Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra speaks to the press in Lima on December 1st last after meeting a congressional commission to respond to bribery allegations. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

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Peru has been rocked by revelations that nearly 500 people, including former president Martín Vizcarra and other senior politicians, were vaccinated against coronavirus on the quiet, weeks before the vaccines were made available to health professionals and the public.

The scandal has shaken a country which has been among the worst hit in the region by coronavirus, and which at one point had the highest per capita death rate anywhere in the world. The nation of 32 million people has recorded more than 1.2 million cases and nearly 44,000 deaths.

The country’s health and foreign ministers have resigned over what local media have dubbed “Vacuna-gate” (Vaccine-gate). Both ministers acknowledged that they were vaccinated in January, before Peru started its vaccine rollout.

Neither went public with the news at the time, nor did they tell the president, Francisco Sagasti, who was inoculated on February 9th, apparently under the belief that he was the first person in his cabinet to get the jab from Chinese company Sinopharm.

Vizcarra, meanwhile, was vaccinated in October along with his wife and older brother. Public prosecutors have opened an investigation into how he and his relatives gained access to the vaccine months before doctors and nurses, who have been fighting one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Latin America.

Sagasti said he was furious about the revelations, which come less than two months before Peru goes to the polls to choose a new president. He said that any government official who used his or her position to gain preferential access to the vaccines would be sacked.

The Medical College of Peru expressed its “indignation” over the issue “especially in circumstances in which doctors, nurses, technicians and other healthcare professionals were getting ill and dying in the fight against the pandemic”.

Extra doses

Sinopharm has been conducting clinical trials of Covid-19 vaccines in Peru alongside Cayetano Heredia university in Lima. According to the university, Sinopharm not only imported doses of vaccine for the trial but also brought 3,200 extra doses “to be administered voluntarily to the investigation team and people related to the study”.

On Monday, the university published a list of 487 people who had received some of those doses. Vizcarra, his wife and his brother were on it, as were Pilar Mazzetti, former health minister, and Elizabeth Astete, former foreign minister. None of them was directly involved in the study.

Some people received three doses. One official at the health ministry was vaccinated along with this wife, his sister and his two children. The official has since quit.

Mazzetti resigned on Friday last week, later describing her decision to accept the jab and keep it secret as “the worst mistake of my life”. She said she had “given in to my insecurities and fears” after seeing health workers get ill and, in some cases, die.

Astete resigned on Sunday and issued a statement regretting her actions. Both have been replaced by new ministers.

Vizcarra, who was Peru’s president from 2018 until November last year, said he believed he was receiving the vaccine as part of the Sinopharm trial. When the university clarified last weekend that neither he nor his wife had ever been part of the trial, Vizcarra said this caused him “great surprise”.

He said he had kept the vaccination secret at the time so as not to “put at risk” the normal rollout of the trial. He has since issued a video statement regretting that decision.

Low opinion

Political analysts say the scandal is likely to have an impact on attitudes towards candidates in the presidential election, due to be held on April 11th.

Polls show that even before Vacuna-gate, Peruvians had an abysmally low opinion of their ruling class, having watched a string of presidents and former presidents brought down by corruption scandals or forced out of office after clashing with a hostile congress.

Vizcarra was impeached in November on unproven corruption charges and replaced by the head of congress who lasted just a week before quitting in the wake of street protests over his seizure of power.

Sagasti was named as interim president until the election, on the agreement that he will not stand in it.

The vaccine scandal “will raise public frustration levels with the political class, which could foster greater apathy or encourage a vote for systemic change,” UK-based consultancy Teneo noted. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021