Buenos Aires, Feb 20 (AP) President Alberto Fernandez removed Argentina's Health Minister on Friday after a well-known local journalist said he had been given a coronavirus vaccination preferentially after requesting one from the minister.

The president instructed his chief of staff to request the resignation of health minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia, who is in charge of the government's COVID-19 strategy, said a government official, who was not authorized to release the information and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The firing comes on the heels of reports in recent days that mayors, legislators, activists and people close to political power received vaccine shots despite not being in the priority group of doctors, health personnel and the elderly authorized to receive them.

In a Twitter post, Gonzalez Garcia said he acceded to the president's request to step down, but insisted he was forced out over a misunderstanding. He said that the vaccinated people belong to the groups included within the target population of the current campaign.

Carla Vizzotti, the No. 2 official at the ministry under Gonzalez Garcia, will take over as minister, the state news agency Telam said.

The stir in Argentina follows an uproar in Peru last week after it was confirmed that more than 400 political officials and other prominent people, including then President Martin Vizcarra, secretly received doses of the vaccine produced by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm before health professionals.

Gonzalez Garcia's removal came after journalist Horacio Verbitsky, whose stories and columns on a website and on the radio are seen as pro-government, said he called the minister to request a vaccination and Gonzalez Garcia summoned him to the Health Ministry where he received a Sputnik V vaccine shot Thursday.

"I decided to get vaccinated. I started to find out where to do it. I called my old friend Gines Gonzalez Garcia, whom I have known long before he was a minister," Verbitsky told a local radio station. "I went to the ministry and the team of vaccinators was there."

Fernandez's government has been harshly criticized for Argentina's slow vaccination operation. So far, the South American country has received about 1.5 million doses, mostly Sputnik V but also AstraZeneca, insufficient to immunize a population of 40 million.

Argentina has had 2 million people infected by the coronavirus and 50,857 deaths from COVID-19. - AP