May 20, 2020 / 8:39 PM / 13 days ago

Bolivia investigates health officials over ventilator deal after public outcry

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian authorities on Wednesday fired the health minister and opened an investigation of potential corruption over allegations that officials bought ventilators at inflated prices, underscoring the global challenge to prevent graft in the coronavirus pandemic.

Bolivia's Health Minister Marcelo Navajas looks at a ventilator in San Juan de Dios, Santa Cruz, amidst an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bolivia in this picture taken May 19, 2020. Diario El Debate/Handout via REUTERS

Press reports on the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at $27,683 each, sparked social media backlash against the Bolivian government, which received Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds to buy the devices in May.

Bolivia’s state prosecutor said in a statement on Wednesday that four health ministry officials had been detained and that some officials abroad and intermediaries involved in the deal would also be investigated.

Health minister Marcelo Navajas was also detained in relation to the case, police said. A government spokeswoman said later that Navajas had been dismissed from his post.

“I will seek jail and order the full weight of the law against those who have taken a single cent. Every penny of corruption must be returned to the state,” caretaker President Jeanine Añez had written on Twitter late on Tuesday.

In televised comments, she said she had ordered a thorough investigation “no matter whom it brings down.”

Rosario Canedo, a lawyer acting for Navajas, said the contracts were legal.

“We are going to prove, with documentation, that everything was above board and legal and in response to a historical and very tough moment, where the lives of Bolivian citizens were at risk,” she said.

The scandal emerged after Bolivian officials purchased 170 emergency respirators from the Spanish firm GPA Innova, using IDB funds.

Reuters could not reach the Spanish firm for comment, though its chief executive told Bolivian media that the ventilators had been sold via a third party.

The IDB said on Wednesday it was concerned about “possible irregularities in the purchase of respirators” by Bolivia’s health ministry using financing from the bank.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool

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