Salud Con Lupa uncovered the details of what we call “vaccine diplomacy,” in which Sinopharm sent 3,200 “courtesy doses” to Peru in parallel with the official doses for its phase-3 clinical trial there. Many of these extra doses were made available to people who would be involved with awarding contracts of any approved vaccine for the public.
487 influential people — including the President Martín Vizcarra, leaders in academia and business executives— were secretly vaccinated while clinical trials were still underway. We built a database and published an in-depth interactive platform that revealed the relationships between all the secret beneficiaries.
The distribution of secret doses was kept from the public until February 2021, when former president Martín Vizcarra — removed by Peru’s Congress in 2020 — acknowledged he had received the shot while still in office. The scandal spread far and wide, and more than 40 government officials resigned as a result.
Through extensive data analysis and 23 published articles, the investigation showed the relationships among the power players involved, and how they benefited their own families and colleagues. Salud Con Lupa was able to identify the researchers in charge of the Sinopharm trial, whose relatives received early access to doses of the very vaccine they were evaluating. Some even received three doses.
The team also tracked $800,000 in donations from Sinopharm to the Peruvian Health Ministry while the country was still negotiating the purchase of the vaccines.
Peru’s Sinopharm vaccine trial, the largest in Latin America, is now surrounded by allegations of irregularities. The country’s anti-corruption office has launched an investigation that concluded in October 2021. While the probe moves ahead, the Peruvian Congress has already concluded that there was a “strategy” to benefit Sinopharm. It also banned former president Vizcarra from holding public office for 10 years.
When Peru’s Congress received access to the list of the group of people secretly vaccinated, Salud con Lupa delved deeper. Many names sounded familiar to our journalists. We recognized the names of “the Peruvian scientific elite,” in addition to politicians and academics from top universities in the country. The journalists set out to identify the ministers, government officials, researchers, diplomats, and businesspeople involved. Two months later, we published the results of their investigation, titled “Vaccinegate”, and mapped the whole network of those who received the secret shots.
The team, focused on finding the connections between the 487 secret beneficiaries, built a database that tracked the connections between those people, and layered the results in a visualization that connected each of the institutions, timelines, and individuals in the scandal.
The original list of people secretly vaccinated showed information such as the name, vaccination site, number of doses and their relationship to the clinical trial. Several persons involved were registered as study personnel, but in fact they were some relatives or friends of those responsible for the clinical trial or of public officials who had no participation in the trial. The Salud Con Lupa team created a new public list with the real connections in a Spreadsheet and completed information on these people with various sources: LinkedIn, CV, interviews, request of public information, etc. With this dataset, it was possible to build a network of nodes (characters and institutions) and links (work relationships, friends, family, etc.) that is presented in an interactive visualization built with D3.js. This tool allows you to explore the cases of reported conflicts of interest and the characters involved in each of these.
What was the hardest part of this project?
As a public health platform, Salud Con Lupa held an advantage in covering the Vaccinegate scandal, as its reporters had an existing understanding of the trials and had loyal health sources to turn to. However, it also faced a unique dilemma: many of those trusted sources, including doctors and university professors, were on the list of 487 secret vaccine recipients, and party to the scandal. We decided to publish all the names and the connections that we found as a sign of transparency with our audience.
Salud Con Lupa didn’t just report on Vaccinegate as the political scandal it was. The outlet also focused on the bioethical questions their investigation raised. This is a corruption case, and it’s also a scientific scandal that reveals the conflicts of interest that were normalized by many scientific community members in Peru. That also affected the public’s trust in how the vaccine was tested and researched. Months after the case broke out, Salud Con Lupa followed it closely, paying special attention to how the news has affected the vaccine trial’s volunteers. Some who were given a placebo during the testing phase have yet to receive the actual shot due to the disruption created by the scandal. There’s a crucial aspect to this: the human angle.
What can others learn from this project?
What could have a greater corrupting influence on leaders than money? The answer is vaccines that could save their lives. This was a new way of corruption, because the most value was not money. It was vaccines, and to be sure they will be safe, and companies offered courtesy vaccines to help negotiate with the Peruvian government.
Our reporting suggests questions for newsrooms in other countries to ask: Did officials in their governments also accept secret inoculations before vaccination deals were struck? Did the fear of COVID-19 infections of their families cause normally ethical officials to expose themselves to a new form of corruption?
Our investigation also suggests that reporters need to examine records of visits to heads of government and other executive decision makers, particularly by diplomats. For this work, it’s important to use public information requests.