Latin America's Covid-19 vaccine scandal claims third Health Minister

Mr Juan Carlos Zevallos resigned after he sent letters to university presidents inviting them to skip the line. PHOTO: REUTERS

QUITO (BLOOMBERG) - Ecuador health minister Juan Carlos Zevallos resigned Friday (Feb 26), becoming the third top Latin American health official forced out in two weeks as outrage grows over the ability of the region's richest and most powerful to obtain vaccinations before the rest of the population.

President Lenin Moreno, whose term ends May 24, posted the minister's resignation letter on Twitter.

Mr Zevallos' departure was quickened after he sent letters to university presidents inviting them to skip the line and after prosecutors launched an investigation into his mother's vaccination in January.

Argentina's health minister resigned on Feb 19, as did both the Peruvian health minister and her deputy a week earlier. In both countries, the revelation of VIP vaccinations sent the governments' Cabinets into disarray, as the number of insiders who were vaccinated in secret ballooned to at least 70 in Argentina and nearly 500 in Peru, where a foreign affairs minister was also forced out.

In Ecuador, the scandal is primed to do the same.

It's a tender political moment for the country, with a lame-duck government and a runoff presidential election slated for Apr 11.

"Given the current political situation, and for the sake of continuity of the national vaccination plan, I present to you, Mr President, my resignation," Mr Zevallos wrote in his exit note.

After sharing the letter, Mr Moreno denied in a separate tweet that any of his own close relatives had been vaccinated.

Ecuadorians are infuriated that the glacial pace of the vaccination effort didn't keep well-placed individuals from obtaining the coveted jab.

On Friday, octogenarian radio talk-show host Diego Oquendo became the latest non-frontline person to acknowledge getting the shot.

Unlike Argentina and Peru, where the governments have published lists of people who received shots early, Mr Zevallos said that patient confidentiality made it impossible to do the same.

On Monday, a court in Quito will hear a request by non-governmental organisation Accion Juridica Popular to force the Health Ministry to publish a list of people vaccinated to date, one of its representatives, Mr Santiago Machuca, said via Twitter.

The presidency and health ministry didn't immediately respond to telephone calls and text messages seeking information on who will succeed Mr Zevallos.

The VIP line-cutting trend in the Southern Hemisphere is unsurprising due to a trifecta of regional factors. Latin America is not only one of the world's most economically unequal and corrupt regions, but it's also where the virus has hit the hardest. Forecasts for complete vaccination in the countries ranges from two years to a decade.

Mr Moreno's government initially bet on deliveries of vaccines bought from Western pharmaceutical companies, but initial Pfizer-BioNTech shipments only included doses for 30,000 people.

Before resigning, Mr Zevallos announced that 2 million Sinovac Biotech Ltd vaccines would arrive in March and April. He also predicted that 9 million Ecuadorians would be inoculated by the end of October.

With as many as 6 million of the country's 17.5 million people already estimated to have contracted Covid-19, those projections would allow the country to develop herd immunity, according to the government. In the meantime, a new variant has also cropped up in the past month.

"Zevallos has been an example of what a health minister shouldn't do," said epidemiologist Andrea Gomez.

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