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Fury in Peru after officials secretly received vaccine before health workers

Peruvian Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete, left in December with interim president Francisco Sagasti, resigned this week after it was revealed she had secretly received the coronavirus vaccine before the country’s front-line health workers. (Peru Presidency/Reuters)

LIMA, Peru — When interim president Francisco Sagasti finally unveiled Peru's first coronavirus vaccine deal last month, Peruvians wearied by nearly a year of health and economic crises compounded by the country's recent political turmoil glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel.

As ICU doctors and nurses this month began receiving their shots from the first batch — 300,000 doses from the Chinese company Sinopharm — cautious optimism began to spread. Sagasti said he hoped to have a third of Peru’s 32 million people vaccinated by the time he steps down on July 28.

But the mood in this Andean nation has now turned to uncontained fury. The government has acknowledged that hundreds of high officials and other well-connected VIPs jumped the vaccination queue beginning late last year to secretly get shots before the front-line health workers.

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The scandal, which the Peruvian media have dubbed “Vaccinegate,” broke last week with the news that Sagasti’s predecessor, Martín Vizcarra, received his two jabs in October, just before he was controversially ousted by Congress for unrelated alleged corruption.

Vizcarra, 57, initially insisted, to widespread skepticism, that he had “bravely” been part of a Sinopharm trial of 12,000 volunteers. He even claimed he had later tested negative for antibodies and therefore concluded he had received a placebo.

But as the scandal mushroomed, Lima’s Cayetano Heredia medical school, which oversaw the trial, said the former president was not one of its volunteers. Vizcarra responded by tweeting his “great surprise” and insisting his actions had “not prejudiced anyone, much less the [Peruvian] state.”

But Vizcarra’s vaccination was just the tip of the iceberg. A total of 468 public officials and other well-placed individuals are now known to have been secretly vaccinated from a batch of 3,200 complementary doses provided by Sinopharm during the trial.

The list included the ministers of health and foreign affairs, who have resigned; a prominent lobbyist; the owner of a private clinic; two university rectors; the Vatican’s ambassador to Peru; a health ministry chauffeur; and the relatives of some of these VIPs, including Vizcarra’s wife and brother.

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The doses were intended for researchers and others involved in the trial, according to Oscar Vidarte, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

“They are explicitly mentioned in the trial protocol,” said Vidarte, suggesting the scandal was the result of Peru’s mishandling of them, rather than any attempt by Beijing to curry favor with the country’s most influential leaders.

Public outrage has been stoked further by comments from the two government ministers.

In her final hours in her job on Friday, Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti, 64, lauded for her no-nonsense style, was still insisting she would be the last person in Peru’s health-care sector to be vaccinated: “The captain is the last person to abandon ship.”

Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete, 68, who had overseen the Sinopharm negotiation, said she had accepted the secret shot only because she “could not afford the luxury of becoming ill” — a claim that has prompted comparisons with Marie Antoinette.

Prosecutors are now looking at possible criminal exposure for Vizcarra, Astete, Mazzetti and other public officials.

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César Ramal, a doctor at a public hospital in the jungle city of Iquitos who was flown to Lima last year after he became sick with covid-19, summarized the nation’s indignation.

“How can they take advantage of their position like this, getting vaccinated before the people on the front line?” he asked. “What about the millions of Peruvians who have co-morbidities and are high-risk? It’s just incredible.”

The scandal comes at a devastating time for Peru, which has reported more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and 44,000 deaths, both probably huge underestimates.

One ongoing government epidemiological study has found that 40 percent of the population has been infected — but it hasn’t stopped the country’s second wave from being, by some measures, more intense than the first.

Meanwhile, the country limps toward an April 11 general election amid widespread contempt for the entire political class.

The most popular presidential candidate, George Forsyth, a former soccer player and district mayor, has been polling at just over 10 percent. Given Peru’s runoff system, that means Peru’s next head of government is likely to face both a legitimacy crisis and a splintered and potentially hostile Congress.

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Sagasti, 76, received a jab on live television; he said he was unaware of the secret vaccinations before the scandal broke. As he sought to contain the political fallout, he vowed that any public official who had received a secret shot would be fired.

He said Tuesday the country faced an “ethical and moral crisis,” on top of its public health and economic calamities and political instability.

“What have we done wrong,” he asked, “to put Peru, with all its possibilities and riches, in such a precarious, such a difficult situation?”

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