By Paul Dobson
Mérida, (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela has demanded that the United Nations’ COVAX program return its US $120 million payment or supply the 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses purchased.
“We did our part: over two months ago we sent the entire payment [for the vaccines], incredibly freeing up blocked funds to do so,” president Nicolás Maduro explained on Sunday. “The COVAX system has failed Venezuela. This week we are issuing an ultimatum: either send the vaccines or return our money, period,” he continued.
Last month, Caracas blamed pressure from Washington for the delay in vaccine supply after Swiss bank UBS blocked four transfers to the UN COVAX program. The bank, which unofficially cited compliance with US-led financial sanctions, reported at the time that it was “investigating” the funds which are understood to have still not arrived to the COVAX account.
“It’s crazy,” Maduro went on to say on the Sunday broadcast. “Eight weeks with the money frozen. Someone has gotten involved there to make sure the vaccines don’t reach us,” he accused.
In response to Caracas’ ultimatum, a COVAX spokesman told press on Monday that the organization is “trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible.” While no further details were offered, the body had previously promised to make Venezuela’s fragile healthcare system a “priority.”
A number of analysts have criticized COVAX for slow vaccine rollouts to a range of countries this year. Despite recent vaccine pledges from G7 countries, the program has reportedly “accounted for only 4 percent of more than two billion shots administered worldwide to date.”
Venezuela’s neighbors Colombia and Brazil have both received around half of their COVAX-assigned vaccines, while one of the region’s poorest nations, Haiti, is yet to receive any. Most Latin American countries have had to rely on traditional international trade channels for vaccine supply, but Venezuela has faced limited options as European and North American firms shy away from trading with Caracas out of fear of secondary sanctions.
The Maduro government has reportedly held talks with “global multilateral institutions” to explore alternative Covid-19 vaccine supply routes should they be necessary, as authorities look to speed up a sluggish vaccine rollout.
Vaccination reaches 11 percent of Venezuelans
According to government sources, some 2.5 million Venezuelans have received at least the first dose of a vaccine, representing roughly 11 percent of its 22 million adult population. While this figure is in line with continental averages, it is well shy of the declared 70 percent target set for December.
Venezuela’s vaccination program began in February with healthcare, education and security workers, before expanding to over-60-year-olds in May and now younger adults. Healthcare authorities are currently vaccinating an estimated 200,000 people a day and eyeing an increase to 500,000. Prison inmates and workers are to be included in the program as well, with 40,000 people from 80 prisons starting to receive vaccines last week.
Speaking from the Simón Bolívar Reformation Center in Caracas on Saturday, inmate Samy explained that “We are a vulnerable sector and we appreciate that we have been taken into account.”
Venezuela has received around 3.5 million vaccines so far. Most have come from China and Russia, with Caracas signing a deal last month with Moscow’s Geropharm for 10 million EpiVacCorona doses to complement a similar sum of Sputnik V vaccines purchased in December which are arriving progressively.
The Caribbean country has also been the first to receive Cuba’s Abdala vaccine last week, with an initial installment of 30,000 doses of the purchased 12 million rolled out.
The Abdala vaccine, which has a reported 92.2 percent effectiveness rate and is administered in three doses, has sparked a fierce debate in the country after some private-sector medical associations known for their anti-government rhetoric urged people not to take it.
“Abdala is not a vaccine, it is an experimental biological product,” the Venezuelan Medical Federation said in a statement published last week. “We Venezuelans are not guinea pigs and the Medical Federation urges people to not let themselves be injected with this supposed vaccine,” it continued.
For their part, the Venezuelan Medical Academy, Caracas College of Nurses and Venezuelan Pediatric Society took similar stances, with the former arguing that the vaccine should not be administered as it “has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration nor the European Medicine Agency.”
Public health and other government authorities have been quick to hit back, however, with the vaccine manufacturer’s representative in Venezuela assuring its safety. For his part, Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza also pointed out some of the numerous fallacies the country’s right has historically spread about Cuban involvement in the country.
“A lesson in the Venezuelan right’s obsession with Cuba: they aren’t doctors but witches (2003); they don’t teach to read but indoctrinate (2004); they brainwash in the hospitals (2007); Abdala vaccine doesn’t work, it’s a trick (2021),” he tweeted sarcastically.
After conducting clinical trials for several Cuban vaccines, Venezuela is likewise planning on starting local production of the Abdala shot later in the year.
The Latin American country reported a further 1,240 identified coronavirus cases and 17 deaths on Sunday, taking the total figures to 277,635 and 3,190, respectively.