Venezuela Reports Release of Blocked Funds for COVAX Vaccines

According to Maduro, the funds to purchase 11.3 million doses were liberated by US authorities.

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Cuban doctors inspect Caracas’ Espromed Bio Factory alongside Vice President Delcy Rodríguez with an eye towards starting joint production of the Abdala vaccine later this year. (@RCR750 / Twitter)
Cuban doctors inspect Caracas’ Espromed Bio Factory alongside Vice President Delcy Rodríguez with an eye towards starting joint production of the Abdala vaccine later this year. (@RCR750 / Twitter)
By Paul Dobson
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Mérida, April 12, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela has acquired 11.3 million additional Covid-19 vaccines through the United Nations’ COVAX program.

The US $128 million deal was reportedly made possible after Caracas was able to “liberate” funds which had been blocked by Washington’s unilateral coercive measures. Authorities have informed that an initial 50% downpayment was made to the Switzerland-based GAVI Vaccine Alliance on Saturday, while the remaining monies are “guaranteed.”

Speaking Sunday, President Nicolás Maduro, who has repeatedly denounced that frozen assets have hampered the country’s Covid-19 response, refused to offer details on the origin of the funds.

“When the time comes, we will explain where the money came from,” he said, going on to indicate that the initial downpayment came from “resources which had been kidnapped by the US government.”

Since 2019, Washington has frozen a range of US-based Venezuelan assets, including the CITGO oil subsidiary and a host of bank accounts. Some of the resources were placed under the control of Venezuela’s self-declared “Interim President” Juan Guaidó, who the US continues to recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

US allies have also applied similar asset freezes despite calls for sanctions relief to aid Venezuela’s efforts against the pandemic by a host of international organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council.

Last month, a groundbreaking government-Guaidó agreement was unveiled in which the opposition frontman committed to lobbying the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for the liberation of US $30.3 million in frozen Venezuelan assets. The funds were supposedly destined for the purchase of 12 million COVAX vaccines, but it is unclear if Sunday’s higher-value deal is related to this agreement or comprises a separate deal.

Guaidó, who has previously been accused of blocking vaccine purchases, was quick to question the government’s claims.

The government, he wrote on social media, “had the funds all the time and didn’t want to invest them in the lives of Venezuelans,” going on to suggest that “pressure” by opposition lobbying of UN authorities on Friday had forced Maduro’s hand. He also claimed that the COVAX deal “shows” that the US blockade against Venezuela was merely an “excuse” and does not impact vaccine purchases. For their part, US officials have yet to comment on the alleged release of blocked funds.

To date, Venezuela has received 500,000 donated doses of China’s Sinopharm and has bought 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V, of which 250,000 have arrived. Healthcare, security and educational personnel have been prioritized for vaccination thus far.

The 11,374,000 COVAX doses will allow 20% of the population to be vaccinated, but no shipment date has been announced. It is estimated that the country needs roughly 50 million doses to vaccinate its entire population, with the government pledging to immunize 70% by the end of the year.

It is equally unclear which vaccines will be supplied by COVAX. Venezuela has repeatedly refused to grant a license to AstraZeneca, one of COVAX’s main suppliers, quoting health risks. For his part, Guaidó has led a campaign to revert this decision. COVAX also distributes vaccines offered by the US’ Pfizer/BioNTech.

Local vaccine production “soon”

Venezuela has likewise unveiled plans to start producing vaccines locally in collaboration with Cuba.

The announcement followed a high-level visit of Cuban medical personnel to Caracas’ Espromed Bio Factory last week, concluding that there are “sufficient conditions” to produce the island’s Abdala vaccine “as early as possible.” Venezuela has agreed to participate in phase 3 clinical trials for the Cuban-made Abdala and Soberana 02 vaccines.

“While the world is bottled up in an abominable process of inequality concerning people’s access to vaccines, Cuba is an example of solidarity,” Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said from the factory. The Abdala vaccine is expected to complete trials in July and be rolled out in August.

Venezuela identified 1,101 new Covid-19 cases and 19 more deaths on Sunday, bringing totals to 174,887 and 1,778, respectively. The country returned to a nationwide lockdown two weeks ago after an upsurge in cases caused by the arrival of the P1 and P2 Brazilian variants. The government additionally announced a series of economic measures last week in an attempt to alleviate the impact of the lockdown.

There have been growing calls, however, for a national vaccination plan to be made public, with critical voices from both the left and the right taking up the issue.

Last month, student representatives from the state-run University of Healthcare Sciences denounced that student doctors were not included in vaccination plans despite working on the frontline of the pandemic efforts.

Equally, Caracas central hospital workers held a picket last Tuesday to call for greater vaccination of healthcare workers. According to unnamed union representatives quoted by Reuters, at least 442 Venezuelan healthcare workers have died from Covid-19 over the last twelve months. Some 200,000 of the estimated 1 million healthcare workers in the country have reportedly been vaccinated so far.

A Socialist Party mayor from Yaracuy state also came under fire last week after officials “marked” the houses of seven infected residents. Mayor Luis Duque later issued a public apology and reversed the policy, while the attorney general’s office launched an investigation.

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Mayor Luis Duque drew criticism and a police investigation after marking the houses of seven Covid-19 infected residents last week. He later issued a public apology. (Alcaldía del municipio Sucre)
Mayor Luis Duque drew criticism and a police investigation after marking the houses of seven Covid-19 infected residents last week. He later issued a public apology. (Alcaldía del municipio Sucre)

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