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March 10, 2021

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PERU: Vaccine politics intensifies

BY Nicholas Watson

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The Sinopharm vaccine is currently at the center of a controversy that has implications for both Peru’s vaccine campaign and the presidential election race.

The controversy

On 5 March, the local Willax TV channel broadcast a program examining a study by the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH), which has been Sinopharm’s local partner in Phase III trials for its vaccine. According to the program, the study suggested that the Sinopharm vaccine’s efficacy rate was only 11.5%-33%, or akin to “distilled water.” Appearing as a special guest on the show was Ernesto Bustamente, a former head of the National Health Institute (INS) – and now a congressional candidate for Fuerza Popular (FP) – who said the vaccine “doesn’t work.”

The response was swift. The UPCH said that the study was preliminary, partial, and had been taken out of context. The Health Ministry (Minsa) issued a reminder that Sinopharm’s testing put its effectiveness at preventing infection at 79.3%, while Health Minister Oscar Ugarte said that use of the vaccine would proceed, with 2mn doses expected to arrive over the course of March. The government has ordered 38mn doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, of which 1mn have so far arrived. Finally, the Chinese embassy categorically rejected the report, describing it as “irresponsible.”

Vaccine hesitancy

A Datum poll carried out between 5 and 7 March points to growing public acceptance of vaccines (though many participants may not have seen the Willax TV program): 65% now say they will be vaccinated versus 28% who say they will not, plus 7% who remain undecided. In February, those saying they would definitely get vaccinated stood at 56%.

The problem is that Sinopharm data gaps risk increasing public doubts. Phase III trial data has yet to be published in a medical journal, while reports from the UAE, where the Sinopharm vaccine has been rolled out extensively, suggest a small number of people could be given a third dose because they apparently failed to develop sufficient antibodies. Even if this amounts to a minimal figure, this kind of news will not help to win skeptics over, especially as unscrupulous vested interests are seeking to gain from the situation.

Electoral dimensions

Other FP stalwarts have joined Bustamente in questioning the Sinopharm vaccine. The party is targeting the vaccine on safety grounds and to attack the caretaker administration led by Francisco Sagasti by insinuating there was corruption in the procurement process. This is fertile ground given the recent scandal over vaccines given to government insiders, in addition to evidence of wasteful government spending on discredited Covid-19 treatments.

The FP is not the only party trying to exploit vaccine uncertainties. At least one regional governor has said that he would refuse the Sinopharm vaccine. More significantly, ultra-conservative presidential candidate Rafael Lopez Aliaga has described the Sinopharm vaccine as “the worst in the world.” Both Lopez Aliaga and the FP’s presidential candidate, Keiko Fujimori, detect electoral benefits. Under this logic, attacking the Sagasti administration will help weaken the political center-ground and help bring about a sharply polarized Right versus Left run-off vote in which moderates would swing behind the Right-leaning candidate to block the Left from coming to power. An Ipsos poll due out on 14 March will help determine whether the race is becoming polarized along this way, and if it is, which of Lopez Aliaga or Fujimori is benefitting most.

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