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Health Minister demotes state secretary due to vaccine procurement errors

State Secretary of the Ministry of Health Daina Mūrmane-Umbraško has been reprimanded and demoted for actions related to the purchase of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines, Health Minister Daniels Pavļuts said at a press conference April 8.

In the first vaccine procurement, on 19 November 2020, Latvia could have applied for up to 860 000 doses of “Pfizer” vaccines, but a decision on the purchase of 97 500 was taken. In the next round, when 430 000 doses of this manufacturer's vaccines were offered, Latvia applied for 100 000 doses. A service inspection was conducted at the Ministry of Health to find out how such a decision has been taken.

Disciplinary proceedings (full report in Latvian here) were encouraged because Latvian officials had decided to purchase fewer BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines than were available, which at the beginning of this year resulted in a vaccine deficiency larger than elsewhere in Europe.

The incidents took place under previous Health Minister Ilze Viņķele with Pavļuts replacing her on January 7.

According to Pavļuts, Mūrmane-Umbraško is responsible for not ensuring a transparent and traceable process on the purchase of vaccines. He said that meetings of the procurement working group were not recorded and quantities of vaccines had been misstated.

Pavļuts said the irregularities identified were related to a lack of control under Mūrmane-Umbraško's direct responsibility. Changes to the management of the Ministry would therefore be necessary. Mūrmane-Umbraško has been offered two vacant spots of deputy heads.

Mūrmane-Umbraško did not respond to Latvian Radio calls, but Health Ministry spokesman Oskars Šneiders said she would not comment on the matter.

In a second disciplinary proceedings report (full text in Latvian here) , which has examined the adoption of all vaccine procurement decisions, the same responsible people have been represented, but the name of the head of State Agency of Medicines (ZVA), Svens Henkuzens, also stands out. He doesn't answer calls either.

The Minister for Health said in the press conference Thursday morning that Henkuzens' work had been negligent. According to Pavļuts, Henkuzens had mistakenly informed government representatives about the amount of vaccines available. As a result, the second procurement did not accept all available vaccines, even though the government had ordered it.

“As far as Mr Henkuzens is concerned, I call for disciplinary proceedings concerning the unjustified failure, negligence or poor quality of certain tasks of office in the event of material damage to the interests of the State. The term for this disciplinary matter will be the end of April,” the minister said.

In a statement to the media, ZVA objected to the claims. 

"At the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers of 22 December 2020, which discussed the purchase of additional doses of vaccines, it was noted that information on the maximum number available should be specified. The Cabinet did not ask to clarify the information on the number of doses of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines available, but instead decided on the purchase of no more 100 thousand doses. In addition, officials from the Ministry of Health also participated in this meeting of the Cabinet and also had the same information regarding the number of available doses of vaccines, so they had the possibility and duty to clarify the information that was issued by the Cabinet," said the ZVA statement.

According to ZVA, it is neither its function nor authority to purchase vaccines or other medicinal products. That, according to the statement, is the function of the National Health Service (NVD).

Commenting on the current allegations, the former Minister for Health, Ilze Viņķele, said that she trusted specialists at the time and did not consider that the Minister should be involved in technical organizational matters.

 

 

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