New Peru health minister takes office after vaccine scandal

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A Peruvian health worker shows a dose of the Coronavac vaccine, during the first day of COVID-19 vaccination, in Lima, on February 9, 2021

Ex-Peruvian health minister Oscar Ugarte took up his old role again Saturday, after his predecessor resigned over claims that a former president was vaccinated against Covid-19 long before the jab was available to the public.

Ugarte, a physician who had served as health minister under President Alan Garcia from 2008 to 2011, was sworn in again on Saturday, and thus became Peru's fifth health minister since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in the South American country 11 months ago.

He succeeds Pilar Mazzetti, who had served as health minister since July. She presented her letter of resignation on Friday to President Francisco Sagasti, state television reported.

Ugarte is taking office at a time Peru is being hammered by a second wave of Covid-19. Hospitals have been overrun, with more than 14,100 coronavirus patients, and have reported a lack of oxygen to treat those with breathing problems.

Peru only began its immunization program on Tuesday, two days after receiving 300,000 vaccine doses from state-owned Chinese company Sinopharm.

But the Peru 21 newspaper reported Thursday that former president Martin Vizcarra had been vaccinated in secret in October, just weeks before he was impeached and removed from office on charges that he was "morally incompetent."

Vizcarra has insisted he had merely volunteered to take part in a vaccine trial for the Sinopharm jab.

"I made the brave decision to join the 12,000 volunteers," the former president, who is currently campaigning to win a seat in congress in April's general election, has said.

Vizcarra, 57, said he kept the fact a secret -- his wife also took part in the trial -- because "volunteers have to maintain confidentiality."

However, rival legislator Ali Mamani said his party would make a formal complaint against Vizcarra.

Mazzetti, who was appointed by Vizcarra, has said she knew nothing about her former boss's secret jab and that those in decision-making positions shouldn't take part in the trials "so as not to skew the results."

Peru, which has recorded around 1.2 million coronavirus cases and more than 43,000 deaths among its 33 million people, began immunizing health care workers this week.

Authorities have yet to announce when immunization of the wider population will begin.