"Courtesy Doses": Peru probes early use of Sinopharm vaccine by top government officials

LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian prosecutors are probing the use of so-called “courtesy doses” of China’s Sinopharm vaccine after two top government officials resigned over the weekend upon acknowledging they had taken the Chinese shot months ago, well before they were widely available in the country.

FILE PHOTO: Health workers wait for a dose of the Sinopharm's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Lima, Peru, February 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda/File Photo/File Photo

The growing scandal in Peru erupted Thursday after ousted former President Martin Vizcarra said he too had received an early vaccination. Several other top officials have since stepped down.

“Those who have been involved in these totally improper and inappropriate acts will not have a place in my government,” said interim President Francisco Sagasti in an interview late on Sunday with América Televisión.

Most of his ministers, as well as those who served under Vizcarra, said Sunday they did not receive the shot. Newly appointed Health Minister Oscar Ugarte said on Monday that an initial review suggested 15 to 20 officials had received the shot.

Peru’s Attorney General, Zoraida Ávalos, has opened a preliminary investigation against Vizcarra and “those responsible for handling the courtesy doses” of Sinopharm, a spokesman told reporters.

Vizcarra, who was ousted by Congress in November over corruption allegations, said he did not jump the line to receive the vaccination, but rather that he got it as part of a trial.

But Peru’s Cayetano Heredia University, which helped manage the country’s Sinopharm Group Co Ltd trial, said in a statement that neither Vizcarra nor his wife were volunteers.

Sinopharm’s clinical trials in Peru took place between September and the end of 2020 with about 12,000 volunteers. Local managers of the trial, however, received 3,200 additional doses intended for personnel related to the research, the university said.

The Chinese embassy in Lima said in a statement it had no information on the identity of those who were vaccinated. The embassy said it “rejected the use of terms like ‘courtesy vaccines, donations or perks’ used by some members of the press” and reaffirmed a commitment to improve relations with Peru.

Sagasti said his government was not involved with the allocation of the additional vaccines either. “The decisions about who was vaccinated or not vaccinated with these gift doses, with these donated doses, was exclusive to those who administered those trials,” he said.

Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Franklin Paul and Richard Chang