By Alex Vasquez and Nicolle Yapur / bloomberg.com
J&J shots won’t be available through Covax program until July
Government banned Astra vaccine on blood clotting concerns
Venezuela’s government will ask a UN health program for Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine that may not be available until July, eschewing AstraZeneca shots that would be accessible earlier.
The decision could extend the timeline for mass inoculations as cases hit a six-month peak and overwhelm hospitals.
Nicolas Maduro’s administration will propose the purchase of the single-dose J&J vaccine through the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative, according to a senior government official who asked not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public. The request will be made through an emergency health committee made up of government officials and opposition figures formed last month.
If the proposal is approved by the WHO-affiliated Pan-American Health Organization, Venezuela most likely won’t get the vaccines for at least three months. That’s when J&J shots are set to be delivered to the organization, director Carissa Etienne told reporters this month.
While the facility reported it has 2.4 million AstraZeneca shots ready to ship to Venezuela, Maduro’s administration banned the vaccine amid concerns about it causing blood clots.
Officials are also said to prefer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its easier one-dose application and its less demanding refrigeration requirement of 2–8 degrees Celsius (35-46 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to some other shots, a major factor for a country facing rolling electricity blackouts and ill-equipped hospitals.
The country is seeking “safe, proven vaccines, that are scientifically approved by Venezuela’s health authorities, as it should be,” Maduro said on state TV last week.
Press officials for Venezuela’s health ministry and representatives from the bipartisan health group didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A rare deal between the government and opposition led to the creation of a health committee in charge of securing access to Covax using cash from offshore accounts frozen by U.S. sanctions.
Venezuela has received just 250,000 of Russia’s Sputnik-V shots and 500,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm and remains the South American country with the lowest count of shots administered, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Despite promising to vaccinate ten million people by the end of March, the government hasn’t provided national figures and the immunization plan has only covered some health professionals and school teachers so far.
While the official coronavirus case count remains relatively low, with 156,655 compared with neighboring Colombia’s 2.3 million, local health care centers and labs tell a different story, with intensive care units at maximum capacity across most of the capital.
Venezuela hit a record number of daily cases on Monday with 1,288 new infections. The death toll has risen to 27 people this week, the second highest weekly rate since the virus was detected in the country a little more than a year ago.
While the opposition-led National Assembly approved the release of $30.3 million of funds frozen in the U.S. to pay for the first shipment of vaccines and refrigeration equipment through Covax, it will take about three weeks for the funds to be available, according to another person with knowledge of the negotiations.
Maduro proposed on Sunday a plan to buy vaccines with crude oil as an alternative if offshore frozen funds are not available.