May 20, 2020 / 8:37 PM / 7 days ago

REFILE-Bolivia probes officials over ventilator deal after public outcry

(Corrects spelling in paragraphs 8 and 10)

By Daniel Ramos

LA PAZ, May 20 (Reuters) - Bolivian authorities on Wednesday fired the country’s health minister and launched a probe into potential corruption after officials allegedly bought ventilators at inflated prices, underscoring the global challenge to prevent graft amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Press reports on the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at $27,683 each, sparked social media backlash against the South American country’s government, which received Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds to purchase the devices in May.

Bolivia’s state prosecutor said in a statement on Wednesday that four health ministry officials had been detained over the scandal and that some officials abroad and intermediaries involved in the deal would also be investigated.

Health minister Marcelo Navajas was also detained in relation to the case, the head of the country’s police special forces told reporters. A government spokeswoman said later in the day Navajas had been dismissed from his post.

“I will seek jail and order the full weight of the law against those who have taken a single cent. Every penny of corruption must be returned to the state,” caretaker President Jeanine Añez had written on Twitter late on Tuesday.

In televised comments, she said that she had ordered a thorough investigation “no matter whom it brings down.”

Reuters was unable to reach the health minister for comment.

The scandal emerged after Bolivian officals purchased 170 emergency respirators from the Spanish firm GPA Innova, using IDB funds.

Reuters could not reach the Spanish firm for comment, though its chief executive told Bolivian media that the ventilators had been sold via a third party.

The IDB said in a statement on Wednesday it was concerned about “possible irregularities in the purchase of respirators” made by Bolivia’s health ministry using financing from the bank.

The lender said earlier in May it had financed the country’s purchase of the ventilators as part of $82 million in funding for Bolivia to fight against the spread of the coronavirus. (Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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