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LATIN AMERICA | 02-07-2021 14:07

Venezuela deploys Cuban vaccines as WHO urges caution

Venezuela is the first country outside of Cuba to include the Abdala vaccine in it’s national programme. It’s done so under heavy criticism from local medical associations and NGOs.

Venezuela’s vaccination sites are notorious for their endless lines and general lack of information on who qualifies. Except if you are lining up for the Cuban-made shot.

There are no lists or government text messages required at the two vaccinations sites activated this week in Caracas offering the Abdala vaccine, both located in a residential area inside a large military base called Fuerte Tiuna. Only the patient’s ID and a signed consent form is needed. The longest part of the process is a 30-minute wait to monitor for side effects afterwards. Some are nervous, and with good reason.

Venezuela is the first country outside of Cuba to include the Abdala vaccine in it’s national programme. It’s done so under heavy criticism from local medical associations and NGOs, with the Medical Federation urging people not to take it, saying there’s not enough public information about it. The country received the first shipment of around 30,000 doses on June 24 meant to immunise 10,000 people since it requires three shots. However, the Nicolás Maduro government expects to eventually have enough to fully vaccinate four million people.

“We’re united, Cuba and Venezuela, in building solutions for the Caribbean and Latin America,” Maduro said earlier this year. “I thank them for including Venezuela in these trials.”

While the vaccine supplies are sorely needed, it’s also a clear political statement from Venezuela to begin using the untested shots. The two countries have forged a leftist alliance over the past several decades, at one point swapping fuel shipments from Venezuela for medical professionals sent from Cuba.

While Cuba has said that Abdala has proven to be 92 percent effective – with another shot called Soberana 02 registering a 62 percent efficacy rate – the clinical data hasn’t been through a peer-review. In a press conference Wednesday, the Pan-American Health Organization urged Cuba to register the vaccine and share data so it can be properly assessed by the scientific community.

So far, only 1.3 million Venezuelans have received at least one dose of vaccines made by Chinese and Russian labs, according to a recent report by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Access to vaccines from the World Health Organization-sponsored Covax facility is now uncertain as payment hasn’t been finalised due to compliance issues.

While Venezuela’s Covid-19 cases and deaths pale in comparison to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, official figures are widely considered to vastly underestimate the true impact of the pandemic. The government has been prioritizing people over 60-years-old and medical staff in its vaccination campaign that has barely covered four percent of the population with a first shot.

Venezuela’s Health Ministry didn’t reply to a written request for comment.

Alquimides Guzmán, 34, had registered for vaccination weeks ago but preferred to wait to be called by the government instead of waiting for hours at a vaccination site. When he heard at his office of state-owned financial institution Bancoex that there was a special campaign for the Cuban shot, he decided to show up on Thursday afternoon.

“The Russian, Chinese or the Cuban, I would have any,” he said after waiting for his monitoring period to end.

Most of the people getting the Cuban shot were public workers, from police officers to subway employees and Supreme Court officials. The campaign was first designed to attend to the neighbours of Fuerte Tiuna, but as there weren’t enough volunteers and some had already been vaccinated, the scope was later broadened.

“Seventy percent of the people that have come here are younger than 60,” said Pedro Almenares, representative of the Cuban pharma company BioCubaFarma, who was monitoring the process.

Almenares said the company has already started the process to register the vaccines internationally.

In the meantime, the first doses have almost ran out at Fuerte Tiuna, said Elizabeth Guerra, coordinator of the Cuban Medical Mission.

She celebrated how quick the process is, claiming the problem with other sites is that it takes too long to register the patient. Cuban nurses lead vaccine administration, while staff from the Health Ministry helps with registration, consent, and washing patients’ hands with buckets and plastic bottles.

“Other countries are already requesting vaccines, such as Argentina,” she said.

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by Nicolle Yapur, Bloomberg

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