(Adds details on vaccine purchases)
By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA, March 4 (Reuters) - Under pressure from an anti-corruption watchdog that publicly urged Honduras to come clean about a snag in its plans to buy millions more coronavirus vaccine doses through the COVAX program, the government on Thursday said it plans to buy from Russia.
It would acquire 4.2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine in what would be the second direct deal after a purchase of 1.4 million AstraZeneca doses. In a later statement, the government said the Russian ambassador to Honduras had confirmed the contract.
Honduras originally had said it wanted to cover about 2 million people this year with extra doses bought through World Health Organization-backed COVAX and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) - an addition to donated doses for which the government is eligible through COVAX. The donated doses would cover 20% of the population of about 10 million.
The National Anti-Corruption Council, a government watchdog, sent a letter dated March 3, which it shared on Twitter on Thursday, saying the government was aware the purchase of additional vaccines from COVAX was not going to happen and it should tell the public.
"Said information has not been shared with the Honduran people, who have an inalienable right to know the advances and setbacks that are presented during the acquisition process," the council said in the letter.
In response, the health ministry said it had not received any official notice from COVAX that eliminated the opportunity "to acquire vaccines."
The statement said the donated vaccines through COVAX were secured, but did not address the additional planned purchases.
Health Minister Laura Flores said on local television on Thursday the government had sent a letter to COVAX about the purchases, and that the program had replied it would not be possible to obtain the 4 million doses until later in 2021 or next year due to high demand in over 90 countries.
When asked about Honduras' request, a spokeswoman for GAVI vaccine alliance, which co-leads COVAX, said the priority was to supply coverage for 20% of the population of all participating countries.
"Once this initial goal is achieved we will seek to help all participants that wish to achieve greater coverage," she said.
Cases have been rising in the Central American country in recent weeks. At least 4,214 people have died from the virus, official data shows. (Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa Additional reporting by Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City Editing by Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool)