LIMA – Peruvians’ profound mistrust of their political class has extended into a new realm with “Vacunagate,” a scandal involving the secret administering of vaccines to well-connected individuals in the coronavirus-ravaged Andean nation.
A series of revelations indicate that a certain number of prominent individuals (it remains unclear how many) were inoculated irregularly using doses of the vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm.
The shots were administered clandestinely – allegedly via special arrangements or political pressure – by authorities responsible for the country’s clinical vaccine trials.
The scandal has exacerbated the already widespread distrust for political leaders by ordinary Peruvians, who are angered over what they see as rampant nepotism, dishonesty, lack of transparency and use of public power for private gain in the context of a deadly pandemic.
Sinopharm, whose vaccine underwent a clinical trial in Peru in September, sent that South American country a surplus of around 3,200 doses, most of which went to people involved in research activities.
But some of those doses apparently were secretly administered on a “courtesy” basis to inoculate around 600 people.
That group of vaccines was never part of the control experiment and was apparently administered at the discretion of the director of the clinical trial, German Malaga.
Ex-President Martin Vizcarra and his wife, Maribel Diaz, received their doses from that batch after being offered them by Malaga, the erstwhile head of state said.
Meanwhile, now-former Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete, who resigned over the scandal, still has not clarified who offered her a vaccine, and the final destination of many other doses also remains unknown.
China’s embassy in Peru issued a communique indicating that the clinical trial was conducted in compliance with procedures laid out by the Peruvian authorities and was carried out by two Peruvian universities. It said it has no information on who was inoculated.
The embassy, however, rejected the notion that “courtesy vaccines” were distributed.
“The situation is extremely serious. This comes a few weeks before the general elections (April 11). It not only weakens the situation of an already weak government, but it also shows that politics is a space where citizens’ interests are not prioritized. Just the opposite: it’s a space for games with little transparency and little clarity,” Adriana Urrutia, president of the civil association Transparency, told EFE.
In the view of Urrutia and many Peruvians, a lack of ethics and transparency in this case is plainly evident.
She said three basic principles that should guide the actions of public servants were violated in this case – probity, veracity and transparency.
On a positive note, the political analyst said President Francisco Sagasti’s administration and the Attorney General’s Office have acted quickly to clarify what happened and determine who benefited from the vaccines.
The head of state has called for the removal of all officials who secretly received the vaccine, while the AG’s office has announced that Vizcarra is currently under investigation.
Societal pressure also has led a growing number of politicians (Cabinet ministers, lawmakers, senior officials) to submit sworn statements indicating they have not been vaccinated.
Journalists and analysts, however, are focusing their attention on a list of prominent people who have been mum about whether they were a beneficiary of one of the clandestinely distributed vaccines or not.
Many of those individuals are candidates in the April general elections, including Vizcarra.
“Regarding the extent of the scandal, I think we have to wait until the investigations have been concluded. It’s only after knowing the evidence that we’ll be able to see the magnitude and reach of these actions,” Urrutia said.
“The lies will weigh on” Vizcarra, the analyst said, adding that the prospects for a seat in Congress for the former head of state – once widely seen as an anti-corruption crusader – could be derailed by a tarnished public image.
The biggest concern for most Peruvians beyond the political repercussions is safeguarding the vaccination rollout, which kicked off just a week ago.
“You have to make a distinction between the decision makers, who may have received irregular vaccines, and the medical group who made the human effort to make the vaccine a solution,” the analyst said.
Peru – a nation of nearly 33 million people – has been hard hit by the pandemic, with more than 1.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 43,700 deaths attributed to COVID-19.