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Peru names 6th FM in under a year as vaccine scandal grows

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Handout picture released by the Peruvian presidency showing interim President Francisco Sagasti (L) swearing veteran Peruvian diplomat Allan Wagner in as the country’s new foreign minister, in Lima on February 15, 2021. – Wagner was sworn in as the new head of Peruvian diplomacy, the sixth since the coronavirus pandemic broke in the country 11 months ago. He is replacing Elizabeth Astete who resigned on the eve, amid a growing scandal over politicians receiving COVID-19 vaccinations well before the general public. (Photo by – / Peruvian Presidency / AFP) /

Peru on Monday appointed its sixth foreign minister in less than a year following a fresh resignation over a growing coronavirus vaccinations scandal.

Veteran diplomat Allan Wagner, 79, was sworn in less than 24 hours after Elizabeth Astete became the second top official to step down over the scandal.

Peru has been gripped in recent days by the news that government officials received the Covid-19 vaccination weeks or even months before the South American country launched its immunization program.

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Health minister Pilar Mazzetti stepped down last week following a newspaper report that former president Martin Vizcarra had received a shot of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in October.

Peru only began its immunization drive, starting with healthcare workers, in early February after receiving 300,000 doses of vaccine.

But there is still no official start date for the immunization of the general population.

President Francisco Sagasti made a televised announcement late Monday to reveal that almost 500 people had been “irregularly” vaccinated, including the two ex-ministers and other government officials.

Sagasti said that “487 people, including many public officials, took advantage of their position to be immunized with the Sinopharm vaccines that came in addition to those used in clinical trials.”

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“I deeply regret that the list provided by the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia,” which is in charge of the trial for the Chinese vaccine, “includes people who have been part of our government, including the former ministers Elizabeth Astete and Pilar Mazzetti.”

“They will understand that we are indignant and feel a deep sense of pain,” he added.

Peruvian media reported at the weekend that Attorney General Zoraida Avalos had opened a “preliminary investigation” against Vizcarra and others responsible for the early vaccination of senior officials.

Astete tweeted on Sunday that she received the shot last month, calling it a “serious mistake” and saying she would not get the second dose.

Vizcarra, who was impeached and removed from office in November on corruption charges, insists he took part in a vaccine trial and had kept the news quiet due to volunteer “confidentiality.”

However, the university leading the trial on Sunday denied Vizcarra had been a volunteer, a statement at which he expressed “great surprise” while reiterating his claim.

Vizcarra, who left office with high approval ratings, apologized Monday to his compatriots “for not having reported that fact at that time,” but insisted that he had volunteered for the trial, along with his wife and brother.

“I submit to the investigations in order to clarify this situation,” he added, denying that he had “lied” or committed a crime.

An ‘ethical issue’
The Chinese embassy said in a statement that it did not have information on the identity of those vaccinated, since the trial was conducted by Peruvian universities, and rejected the use of “terms such as courtesy vaccines, donations or perks” used by Peruvian media.

The scandal comes with Peru suffering from Latin America’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and in the midst of an election campaign for April polls.

The country of 33 million has recorded more than 1.2 million cases and more than 43,700 deaths from Covid-19.

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While leaders and government ministers in some other countries made a public display of getting vaccinated to encourage nervous citizens about safety concerns, the secrecy surrounding Peru’s top officials getting the shots early has sparked criticism among ordinary folk.

“It is a more ethical issue. You and your family cannot get vaccinated when there are people on the front line, doctors, who have died,” worker Anais Rojas told AFP.

“I do not see (this matter) as a priority at this time, given the situation we are in, (but) I believe that an investigation should be done,” said Kevin Calero, an administrative employee.

Wagner was previously foreign minister from 1985-88 and then again from 2002-03.

A career diplomat who entered the foreign office in 1963, he was previously defense minister and ambassador to the US and the Netherlands.

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