The Buenos Aires Province government and Olavarría City Hall swapped angry accusations on Tuesday when 400 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine had to be discarded.
The disposal came after the freezer storing them in the local hospital interrupted refrigeration, with the provincial government alleging sabotage and officials in Olavarría charging negligence.
Local courts have now opened investigations into whether the freezer broke down due to sabotage or technical problems.
Marcelo Sobrino, the prosecutor-general in the nearby town of Azul in southern Buenos Aires Province, said that the freezer was set above room temperature when the vaccine requires storage at 18-40° below zero Celsius, a statement also backed up at a press conference on Tuesday by hospital director Silvina Rosende.
As a result, all but 50 of the city’s allotment of 450 doses (out of a nationwide total of 300,000 and a provincial total of 123,000) were lost with the Buenos Aires Province Health Ministry obliged to relocate the inoculation of Olavarría’s health-workers to the neighbouring districts of Azul y Tapalqué.
Sobrino added that prosecutor Viviana Beytía was looking for the necessary engineers to carry out the specific tests on the freezer at Olavarría’s Luciano Alfredo Fortabat Oncological Hospital. He also pointed out that there were security cameras “aimed directly at the freezer," as well as night-watchmen, in response to allegations that sabotage may have been to blame for the error.
"Nobody in particular is being investigated but rather the whole institution, everybody with access to that spot,” said Sobrino.
“We’ll detect the corresponding administrative and criminal responsibilities," he added, while not ruling out sabotage.
"If it ends up falling under Article 205 [of the Criminal Code], it will pass to the federal courts," he said in reference to the possibility of this being an attempt to wreck the government’s vaccination campaign against coronavirus.
A number of opposition politicians and anti-government figures have expressed doubt over the effectiveness of the Russian-made vaccine. In recent days, a number of false allegations relating to the vaccine and its alleged side-effects have circulated on social networks in Argentina, with one inaccurate report claiming that an Army officer died after having been given the shot. The AFP news agency’s fact-checking arm confirmed that story was untrue last week, finding that the officer in question had not been vaccinated.
Deputies belonging to the Civic Coalition founded by Elisa Carrió have denounced political patronage in the distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine, which they presume to be a responsibility of the Kirchnerite youth grouping La Cámpora, implying a deliberate neglect designed to hurt the image of local mayor Ezequiel Galli, a militant member of ex-president Mauricio Macri’s centre-right PRO party – suspicions echoed by Olavarría City Hall.
But while ruling out these accusations, Buenos Aires Province health authorities had suspicions of their own with Ramiro Borzi, head of the Nith Sanitary Region, insisting that "the facts don’t fit.”
“A series of grave irregularities is beginning to be corroborated. For example, at 2.50am the camera monitoring the freezer went off while other cameras recorded strange movements around the hospital. The security staff in the vaccine zone failed to report for duty," he said.
"We don’t know if it was sabotage or a boycott [of the vaccination campaign] but we’re going to court to advance in the investigation."
Speaking this week, Galli said that “the courts will have to work out who’s responsible.”
“The doses arrived last weekend and we don’t know what happened over the weekend but today [last Monday] the doctors found the wrong temperature in the freezer and had to throw away the doses,” he said, while underlining that the hospital fell under provincial and not municipal administration.
Asked about the possibility of the damage being intentional, the mayor replied: “Let’s hope not, I want to believe it was a technical glitch.”
Argentina began its vaccination campaign against Covid-19 just after Christmas, using the Sputnik V vaccine prepared by the Nikolai Gamaleya Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology of Russia.
The Alberto Fernández administration has an agreement with Russia that provides for a total of 20 million doses by the end of February with the option of buying five million more.