In Peru, they’re calling it ”vaccine-gate” — revelations that the then-president, his wife and other well-connected citizens were secretly inoculated against COVID-19 starting in October, before the Chinese-developed shots were available to the public.
The escalating scandal that broke last week has already forced the resignations of Peru’s foreign and health ministers, among nearly 500 people who received so-called courtesy doses.
“Nothing excuses what I did, much less having covered it up,” declared the former health minister, Pilar Mazzetti. “I took this decision with the fears and limitations of a human being and I recognize that this was the worst mistake of my life.”
The vaccine in question was produced by Sinopharm, one of several Chinese companies aggressively marketing COVID-19 vaccines throughout Latin America.
Peruvian federal prosecutors and a congressional commission are investigating how the Sinopharm shots ended up allocated to a privileged few as COVID-19 ravaged the country of 32 million. The government has released few details about the contract — it is not publicly known how much Peru paid the majority state-owned company — fanning speculation about a vaccines-for-favors scheme that sidestepped non-Chinese suppliers.
The Chinese Embassy in Lima has denied any impropriety on its part and said it “rejected the use of terms like courtesy vaccinations, donations or perks.”
Apart from the scandal, Sinopharm’s central role in Peru’s vaccine rollout underscores the broad reach of China in the Americas. Even before the pandemic, China had become an economic colossus in the region, usurping the United States as chief trading partner to Peru, Brazil and other nations. In Peru, China is a towering force in mining, electricity generation and infrastructure projects, including the construction of a new deep-water port.
Seizing on COVID-19 to expand its global influence, China has emerged as a major player in the vaccine sweepstakes — particularly in Latin America.
The Chinese “are trying to sell things and increase market share by leveraging something, vaccines, that the world really wants,” said Evan Ellis, a professor with the U.S. Army War College and an expert on Chinese investment in Latin America. “Suddenly everyone in the world wanted this, and they had a piece of it, and they’re trying to use it to their advantage.”
Brazil, Chile and Mexico are also relying heavily on Chinese vaccines.
The Chinese shots have had to overcome considerable initial public skepticism compared with heavily hyped Western competitors such as the one from U.S.-based Pfizer and Germany-based BioNTech.
"The Pfizer vaccine was better known," said Carla Aravena, a 27-year-old English teacher in the Chilean capital of Santiago, who wavered on whether to get a shot made by the Chinese company Sinovac before going ahead with it. "But then I said to myself, 'If the Chinese have such an obvious problem, they must have maximized their efforts to get a good outcome.' "
“In the United States they have control of all the vaccines that they develop,” he told reporters this month, pointing to a chart showing that many cash-strapped countries had yet to receive a single dose. “Our case, and that of Latin America, is different.”
Mexico launched its vaccine rollout with great fanfare late last year after an initial delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech shots. But Pfizer suspended deliveries to Mexico for three weeks after its production plant in Belgium — for non-U.S. clients — ran into a logjam.
Hastening to secure shots wherever they can, Mexican officials have pinned high hopes on CanSino Biologics, another Chinese pharmaceutical outfit. Mexico enlisted about 15,000 volunteers for late-stage trials of the CanSino vaccine, which had been initially tested on Chinese military personnel. The country also has a deal to package 35 million doses of Cansino’s formula at a plant outside Mexico City.
Besides being cheaper than U.S.-made vaccines, the Chinese shots have other advantages. They do not require deep-freeze storage, and the CanSino vaccine requires one shot rather than two.
In clinical trials, Chinese vaccines have not approached the 90%-plus effectiveness in preventing symptoms that was achieved in tests of shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and the U.S. company Moderna — though experts say it is difficult to make such comparisons because trial conditions were not standardized.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro initially derided Chinese formulas as dangerous. With alternatives lacking, however, Brazil ultimately approved the purchase of 100 million doses of the Sinovac shot, which tested just slightly above the World Health Organization efficacy threshold of 50%.
Like Brazil, Peru was slow to start inoculating people. Talks with Pfizer, the U.S. vaccine maker, ran into “serious difficulties,” Elizabeth Astete, then the foreign minister, told the Peruvian press in January without elaborating.
Peru went with Sinopharm, a deal announced last month that promises to deliver 38 million doses, enough to inoculate more than half its population.
The country kicked off its vaccination campaign this month after receiving its first million doses. Among the first to get the Chinese vaccine publicly was President Francisco Sagasti — in a media-hyped display meant in part to quell doubts about the Chinese product.
Within days, however, the feel-good moment faded as the vaccine-gate story hit the headlines. The press ultimately reported that political figures, university chiefs, diplomats and others — including the chauffeur of the former health minister — had been secretly given the shot during late-stage trials for Sinopharm.
Ex-President Martín Vizcarra — who was impeached in November in a separate corruption case involving alleged bribes while he was a state governor — initially asserted that he had participated in trials of the Sinopharm shot. But he later offered apologies when the university overseeing the trials said the president had requested the vaccine for himself, his wife and his brother.
Astete resigned as foreign minister Saturday after admitting to what she called the "grave mistake" of being inoculated with the Chinese vaccine before its public release.
The disclosures sparked profound outrage even in Peru, a country deeply inured to political scandal — six of its last seven presidents have either been forced from office amid allegations of wrongdoing or faced charges upon completing their terms.
It turned out, the current president said, that 487 people were “irregularly” given the Sinopharm vaccine.
Some recipients defended their actions. “It’s not about privilege; it’s about the way things function,” Germán Málaga, who headed the Sinopharm trials at Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University and received the shot last year, along with his wife and daughter, told Congress.
Not every recipient was a political insider — some just got lucky. The owner of a favored Chinese restaurant in Lima received the shot, Málaga told Peruvian radio, because a Chinese logistics team helping on the trials “got tired of eating Burger King.”
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent León from Lima. Special correspondent Jorge Poblete in Santiago contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.