(Bloomberg) – Venezuela’s vaccination sites are sadly notorious for their endless lines and a general lack of information on who qualifies to get vaccinated. Unless you’re queuing for the Cuban vaccine.
No lists or text messages from the government are required at the two vaccination sites activated this week in Caracas to offer the Abdala vaccine, both located in a residential area within a large military base called Fort Tiuna. All you need is the patient’s ID and a signed consent form. The longest part of the process is waiting for 30 minutes to monitor for possible later side effects. Some are nervous, and with good reason.
Venezuela is the first country outside of Cuba to include the Abdala vaccine in its national immunization program. And it has done so under strong criticism from local medical associations and NGOs; the Venezuelan Medical Federation has urged people not to get vaccinated with it, saying there is not enough public information about it. On June 24, the country received the first shipment of around 30,000 doses to immunize 10,000 people, since it is necessary to administer three doses. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro hopes to have enough supplies later to fully vaccinate 4 million people.
“We go together, united, Cuba and Venezuela, building the answers and solutions of our Caribbean Latin America, of our America,” Maduro said earlier this year. “I thank you for incorporating Venezuela into these trials.”
While vaccine supplies are badly needed, starting to use untested vaccines is also a clear political statement from Venezuela. The two countries have forged a left-wing alliance in recent decades; at one point they exchanged fuel shipments from Venezuela for medical professionals sent from Cuba.
Although Cuba has said that its vaccine has been shown to be 92% effective – along with another vaccine called Soberana 02, which has an efficacy rate of 62% – the clinical data has not undergone a peer review. On Wednesday, at a press conference, the Pan American Health Organization urged Cuba to register the vaccine and share the results of its studies so that the scientific community can evaluate it properly.
So far, only 1.3 million Venezuelans have received at least one dose of vaccines made by Chinese and Russian laboratories, according to a recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Access to vaccines through the Covax global mechanism, sponsored by the World Health Organization, is now uncertain, as payment has not been finalized due to compliance issues.
While the cases and deaths from covid-19 in Venezuela are few compared to its neighbors Colombia and Brazil, official figures are considered to greatly underestimate the true impact of the pandemic. The Government has been prioritizing people over 60 and medical personnel in its vaccination campaign that has barely covered 4% of the population with a first vaccine.
Venezuela’s Health Ministry did not respond to a written request for comment.