Ecuador opens probe of health minister over COVID vaccine influence peddling

QUITO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Ecuador’s chief prosecutor’s office said the Friday it has opened an investigation into Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos for alleged influence peddling in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccination, an accusation that Zevallos denies.

The legislature this week asked President Lenin Moreno to sack Zevallos following reports that he had overseen delivery of doses to a private hospital’s nursing home where his mother resides, as part of a trial of the Pfizer vaccine.

“This investigation was opened in response to the request made by the (legislature) of Ecuador,” the chief prosecutor’s office wrote on Twitter, without elaborating.

Moreno has not yet responded to the request to sack Zevallos.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week, Ecuador received the first 8,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and started a pilot plan to immunize residents of nursing homes and medical personnel in hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients.

“If someone believes that my mother or anyone else should have been left out of this process, I must tell them that I differ, with all due respect,” Zevallos said this week in a recorded message distributed by the ministry’s press office.

“Don’t count on me to run out the door. We haven’t finished this job and it’s not time to let our guard down. We keep losing people to this terrible disease.”

Ecuador by February expects to receive some 86,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, of a total of 2 million it hopes to acquire from Pfizer.

Ecuador has also approved the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Andean nation has registered more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths and 246,000 infections, data published on Thursday showed. Another 4,679 people are suspected to have died from COVID-19 before being diagnosed.

Ecuador hopes to immunize 9 million people by October. (Reporting by Alexandra Valencia, writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Barbara Lewis)