Late Friday President Alberto Fernández abruptly requested the resignation of Health Minister Ginés González García after scandalous allegations he allowed friends, acquaintances and politicians to be vaccinated out of turn.
Earlier Friday, the so-called ‘VIP vaccination’ scandal emerged detailing allegations that various leading government supporters – with renowned journalist Horacio Verbitsky the best-known name – had exploited their contacts to jump the queue and get their Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine jabs earlier than they should have.
Adding weight to the claims, which Verbitsky detailed himself in an interview, it emerged that some had even received shots at the Health Ministry’s offices in downtown Buenos Aires.
The news was quickly reported by at least three local media outlets and was confirmed by government sources to Perfil.
González García has faced criticism as Argentina struggled to seal vaccine contracts and the pace of inoculations is well below the government’s target. The minister made missteps in the management of the pandemic that included dismissing concern about the virus early in 2020 and projecting cases would fall multiple times, only to see cases surge after a very strict lockdown. The minister also battled with Pfizer over legal terms for vaccine doses, unable to secure an agreement.
The departing minister’s second-in-command, Health Secretary Carla Vizzotti, was reportedly in line to replace him, at the very least temporarily, with the La Nación newspaper claiming the news had been confirmed by inner government sources. However, other reports suggested Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (who turned 68 yesterday) was allegedly keen on celebrating her birthday by having Buenos Aires Province Deputy Health Minister Nicolás Kreplak (who vaccinated her last month in person with gushing words of emotion) installed as the new minister.
According to reports, the scandal infuriated the president, who immediately rang González García to demand an explanation for the misuse of Ministry offices and national resources. Upon receiving none which satisfied him, he is said to have rapidly decided that the veteran surgeon had to go, calling Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero to his office and ordering him to contact the minister to insist on his resignation. Cafiero complied with these instructions and it was assumed that González García would be out of the government just as soon as he had written the corresponding letter.
Finally, González García tendered his letter of resignation to the president late Friday. He blamed his private secretary for a misunderstanding that had led to those individuals being vaccinated out of turn.
"Responding to your express request, I present my resignation from the position of minister of health," the minister, 75, wrote in a letter addressed to the president.
Fernández then offered the post to Vizzotti, according to a statement from the presidency’s press office. She will take the position at 5pm Saturday in Buenos Aires, the statement said.
The scandal initially broke Friday morning when Verbitsky, 79, told El Destape Radio (during a programme ironically called Habrá Consecuencias – “there will be consequences”) that he had received his Sputnik V jab at the Health Ministry following consultations with González García as to the quickest access to the vaccine.
The reaction of the radio station’s head Roberto Navarro was to discontinue Verbitsky as a columnist and blacklist him from El Destape.
“You will recall that some time ago I said that I would prefer to wait a few months before being vaccinated in order to see what secondary effects it might have. I was in no hurry to be vaccinated but yesterday I did it,” Verbitsky said in the initial interview.
“Having decided to get vaccinated, I set about checking out where and I called up my old pal Ginés González García, whom I have known since long before he was minister, and he told me I had to go to Posadas Hospital. Now that’s in Palomar, in the district of Morón, I think, and the Carlos Gardel shantytown is nearby. Just when I was about to set out, I got a call from the secretary of Ginés, who told me that a vaccination team was coming from the Posadas Hospital to the Ministry and that I should go there to receive the vaccine,” the journalist narrated.
Verbitsky said he then headed for the downtown Ministry (9 de Julio y Moreno) offices “where I found the vaccination team, besides which I have a fraternal relationship with the Posadas workers.”
He received his first dose on Thursday with no adverse reaction and has a second dose lined up for March 2. Verbitsky added that after having no interest in vaccination for several months, the experience of several members of his family coming down with Covid-19 (including one death) had changed his mind.
The journalist and author is just one of those known to have jumped the queue, with local outlets hinting there are many more. Among other VIP beneficiaries of vaccination at the Health Ministry the names of deputy Eduardo Valdés and Senator Jorge Taiana (Frente de Todos-Buenos Aires Province) were also leaked.
In the morning interview Verbitsky further added the name of Clarin journalist José Antonio Aranda to the list of the privileged although the latter said that he did not go to the Ministry because he was prepared to wait for the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. Aranda fiercely denied that claim later in a brief statement issued late Friday, saying that had not sought to receive a jab out of turn.
The vaccination of those over 70 in Buenos Aires province was scheduled to begin in midweek after the long weekend but was postponed until Thursday due to delays in vaccine deliveries, while in the Federal Capital those over 80 will be inoculated as from next week.
In both cases the elderly person has to register in a list and wait his or her turn for the vaccine against coronavirus.
As of the latest official data Wednesday, Argentina has administered 633,637 total doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, well below the target of 10 million the government set for the end of February.
The country has recorded over two million total Covid-19 cases and 51,000 deaths as of Friday night.