PANAMA CITY – One Monday in June in an upscale neighborhood of Panama City, people noticed something strange: strange cars coming and going from the Coco del Mar Suites, a non-descript three-story residential building that sits on the edge of the luxury ocean is surrounded by.
It was not long before the newspaper La Prensa cleared the mystery. In a second-floor apartment that was recently sprayed with a new coat of paint and had air conditioning and electrical work done, someone was running a secret COVID-19 inoculation site that Pfizer reportedly found. -BioNtech was offering the vaccine.
Investigators soon linked this to another plan injected underground a week earlier, also in the affluent coastal neighborhood of Punta Pacifica on the 43rd floor of a residential skyscraper.
“There are those people with money around here,” said Jacinto Ortega, who was recently in Punta Pacific to deliver groceries, “and they must have some connection with someone to get vaccinated.”
According to the investigation, the first secret injection clinic took place on June 1 at the home of a woman, identified as Celine Gazal d’Ass. According to the investigation being carried out by Chief Prosecutor Javier Caraballo, fifteen people, including Gazal, his son and some employees and friends, were shot there. Ghazal’s lawyer said he had already been vaccinated in the United States.
Dennis Vega, the owner of the Coco del Mar suit, is said to have gotten wind of this and contacted Ghazal to figure out how to contact the people offering the vaccine.
When people came out on June 7, he could be seen peeping through the windows of the third floor. La Prensa said some came in luxury cars, others in run-of-the-mill sedans. Investigators say seventeen people received the shots that day, including some employees of two pharmaceutical labs where Vega worked as a manager. It is not clear whether the money changed hands.
Both places were later raided by officers, but neither Ghazal nor Vega were arrested nor charged with any crime.
So far only the 40-year-old funeral home driver Matias Pérez Escudero has been arrested, who allegedly posed himself as a doctor, offering to call people home and administer shots in both cases. He has been charged with fraud, making false statements and practicing medicine illegally. Perez has not made public comment, and it was not known whether he had an attorney.
Caraballo said officials were also looking for a possible ally.
Worryingly, it is not yet known whether it was actually the coronavirus vaccines that were being injected into the recipients’ arms, or some other substance. The officials have asked the 32 people to undergo laboratory tests to find out those who have come to know about it.
Caraballo said Vega had handed out vaccination certificates to people who had received the shot, but they were different from those being distributed by the official program. And Pfizer’s lot numbers don’t match any obtained by Panama, where, like most countries, the government is the sole importer.
Ghazal’s lawyer, Ezra Engel, said that her family members were victims of a “scam perpetrated by a different subject” and believed they were given a saline solution.
Abilio Batista, a lawyer for Vega, said in public remarks that “everything is being duly cleared.” Vega was fired, and the labs where she once worked tried to distance herself from her actions.
Officials have not publicly named those who were shot. One of them’s lawyer, Alfredo Vallarino, told Panamanian media that he found out about it through WhatsApp, where he was asked to come in groups of 12 and pay $200 to get the vaccine.
The top officials are promising to get to the bottom of the matter.
Health Minister Luis Francisco Sucre said, “We will vigorously pursue and punish those who perpetrate this crime.”
“Credibility is in the balance,” said infectious disease specialist Javier Sainz-Lorence. “There have been many irregularities, while those who are really at risk and on the waiting list remain vulnerable.”
Faustina Díaz Quirós, president of the two associations representing patients with serious and chronic conditions, condemned those involved: “The game of ‘I have money and I can do what I want’ is not fair, reprehensible. , and of course there should be punishment.”
Panama has given approximately 1.4 million doses, enough to fully vaccinate about 17% of its population of 4.2 million. The nation has recorded nearly 400,000 confirmed cases and nearly 6,500 deaths.
Other countries in Latin America have been hit by scandals over vaccine access.
Argentina’s health minister and coronavirus czar resigned in February after a well-known journalist said he was preferably given a coronavirus vaccination after asking the official for one. There were also reports of lawmakers, mayors and others close to power getting further shots from priority groups such as healthcare workers and older people.
And in Peru, the president announced the same month that nearly 500 officials, including former ministers of foreign affairs and health, had taken advantage of their positions to secretly receive early injections of a Chinese vaccine, which the government gave to front-line health workers. Had bought.
In Panama, where the disparity between gleaming high-rise houses and dilapidated slums has been exposed, the scandal was well-known to many.
“Some people are privileged. There’s always someone to take advantage of,” said Eva Perez, 40, who runs a nutrition clinic in the capital’s low-income neighborhood. “So is Panama.”