Venezuela to produce Cuban COVID vaccine: Maduro

President Nicolas Maduro said the country has also secured all funds to acquire 11 million doses via the COVAX mechanism.

Venezuela’s vaccine rollout has been sluggish [File: Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters]

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro says the country has signed a deal to produce two million doses per month of a Cuban coronavirus vaccine, adding that his government also managed to secure funds to fully pay for COVID jabs via COVAX, a global sharing  mechanism.

“We’ve signed an agreement to produce in our laboratories… two million vaccines a month of the Abdala vaccine… for August, September, approximately,” Maduro said on Sunday in a television address, referring to one the four vaccines that are being developed by Cuba.

The South American country will also take part in Phase 3 trials for the Abdala vaccine produced by its socialist ally.

Cuba has developed four jabs that are in various stages of clinical trials. The island nation has already started vaccinating its healthcare workers with two of its vaccines still in the third phase of clinical trials.

Abdala is being given to 124,000 health care workers, while 48,000 volunteers are taking part in a parallel phase-three clinical study. Should it be approved, Abdala would be the first COVID-19 vaccine entirely developed and produced in Latin America.

So far, Venezuela’s vaccine rollout has been sluggish, with 0.34 percent of the population having received at least one shot, trailing neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Colombia which have, respectively, vaccinated 7.57 and 3.88 percent of their residents, according to Our World in Data figures.

To date, the country received 250,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses and half a million from China’s Sinopharm.

A further blow to the country’s inoculation effort was dealt by reports of a possible link between rare cases of blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine.

As a result, Venezuela announced in March that it will not authorise the use of the jab despite having reserved between 1.4 and 2.4 million doses. The reports of clots were confirmed last week by the European Union’s regulator which stressed, however, that the benefits of the vaccine still outweighs its risks.

A woman receives a dose of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID vaccine in Caracas, Venezuela [File: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

Meanwhile, Maduro said the country has also managed to secure funds to acquire 11.3 million doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX mechanism – a global platform aiming to deliver 2 billion shots to poorer countries by the end of the year.

The news came after the government claimed for months that sanctions imposed by the US prevented Venezuela from paying the $120m needed to obtain COVID-19 vaccines, but on Saturday it made the surprising announcement that $64m had been transferred to the Switzerland-based GAVI Vaccine Alliance.

“We have already secured the rest to make 100 percent of the (payment) to the COVAX system,” Maduro said in a televised speech. He said the government had been able to access funds that had been “kidnapped” by the US.

“At the right moment, we will reveal where the money came from,” he said, without elaborating.

Allies of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognised by Washington as Venezuela’s legitimate president, for months negotiated with government officials to pay for COVAX vaccines with funds that had been frozen in the US.

The opposition said Saturday’s announcement was evidence that sanctions do not prevent Maduro’s government from paying for vaccines.

Officially, the country of 30 million has had 175,000 cases and some 1,700 deaths. Venezuelan scientists have attributed the relatively lower case numbers to gasoline shortages that limited mobility in the early months of the pandemic as well as swift lockdown measures.

But observer groups such as Human Rights Watch question such figure, which they say are likely vastly underestimated.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies