Vietnamese official returns ‘gift’ in COVID test-kit scandal

A senior Vietnamese health official has pledged to return a donation given by a COVID testing company as part of a growing bribery scandal that has already ensnared several corporate executives and government workers, Vietnamese sources say.

Nguyen Van Sau, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for southern Vietnam’s Binh Phuoc province, said on Jan. 2 that he will return the donation, described as a “gift” of unnamed value, given in December by the Viet A Company, which won a bid to provide test kits to the province.

Around 90,000 kits were sold to Binh Phuoc at a value over VND 40 billion (U.S. $1.75 million) but were overpriced and did not meet international standards set by the World Health Organization, according to media reports.

The Viet A Company had earlier claimed WHO approval in an April 2020 announcement, state media said.

“But in fact, the WHO only gave its approval to assess the kits for effectiveness and had not approved their use,” Trinh Thanh Hung, deputy director general in the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Science and Technology, is quoted as saying in local media reports.

The value of the gift received by Sau was not publicly disclosed, but a panel set up by the Binh Phuoc Health Department will oversee its return, the department said.

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Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security on Dec. 31 announced a widening of the case against the Viet A Company and government agencies across the country, with company leaders Phan Quoc Viet and Vu Dinh Hiep and Hai Duong provincial CDC director Pham Duy Tien charged with “giving and taking a bribe valued at VND 27 billion,” or about U.S. $1.18 million.

Twelve officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health have also been arrested, with three now facing charges of “abusing their position and rights while performing official duties.” Nine others have been charged with “violating bidding regulations, causing serious consequences.”

Sau’s pledge to return his gift may have been forced by the Ministry of Public Security’s moves against other officials involved in the case, a health expert from southern Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The most important thing will be to see how far they pursue this, as many individuals have been found to be involved in the case from the central government to provincial and business leaders,” he said. “It’s noteworthy that they are all ‘top brass’ and not just the rank and file.”

Investigators may deal with the case only within limits, though, as “their goal will be to combat corruption and recover some state assets,” he said.

“I think they will not use a really heavy hand, as they would face the risk of losing their regime.”

Anti-corruption expert Pham Quy Tho said the giving and receiving of “staggering commissions” has been a subject of discussion in Vietnam for many years but has never been effectively addressed.

“The question raised by this particular high-profile case is how enterprises can operate in a one-party rule environment where government officials’ morals have deteriorated,” he said.

“Will the Central Steering Committee be able to promote institutional reforms before everything gets worse, or will it just continue to ‘enter the fight’ in order to deal with the consequences?”

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Artmotion Asia

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