After assuring that Venezuelan scientists have confirmed Sputnik V’s safety and efficacy, Nicolás Maduro calmly said in a press conference on Wednesday that chavista political leaders would be included in the first stage of the COVID-19 vaccination plan, along with doctors, nurses, police and military officers.
The statement comes a couple of days after the regime announced the arrival of the first 100,000 doses of Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine, amidst uncertainty regarding its distribution plan in the country—and sure enough, Maduro announced on Thursday, February 18th, that Dr. Glendy Rivero, who works at the Victorino Santaella Hospital in Miranda state, was the first person to get the Sputnik V vaccine in Venezuela.
Justifying the inclusion of politicians and security forces, though, Maduro said these groups were particularly exposed to the virus due to their close contact with the people, as the recent deaths of Darío Vivas and other PSUV leaders show.
Nicolás Maduro is hardly the first leader to announce politicians will be vaccinated before the general population. Peru is facing a huge political scandal on the matter, and back in December, Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence, as well as members of Congress, were among the first people to get the vaccine in the United States. While this sparked a well-founded debate, many argued that the fact politicians received the shots would increase public confidence in vaccination programs.
Despite an obscure development process and a reckless, politically charged initial rollout in Russia, subsequent evidence suggests the vaccine is safe and effective.
Now, although vaccine hesitancy is not a major concern in Venezuela (not a lot of anti vaxxers around here), many are unsure about getting a Russian vaccine—understandable, as the rollout of Sputnik V has been heavily politicized since day one, and has been repeatedly sponsored by the same government that announced it had developed “miraculous drops” to cure coronavirus less than a month ago.
But fears surrounding Sputnik V are more based on a well-founded distrust from the government, rather than on scientific evidence. Despite an obscure development process and a reckless, politically charged initial rollout in Russia, subsequent evidence suggests the vaccine is safe and effective.
Initial phase 1 and 2 results presented last September already suggested the vaccine produced a strong and potentially protective immune response. This has been now confirmed in the interim results of phase 3 trials, recently published in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious, peer-reviewed journals in the world.
After being tested in over 20,000 people, there are little doubts that Sputnik V is a good vaccine. A particularly valuable characteristic of the vaccine is that its dried form can be safely stored between +2 and +8°C, a major advantage for a country where the complex cold chains needed to keep other vaccines from damaging are unlikely to be sustained.
However, if you think Maduro’s choice to prioritize the military and PSUV honchos aims at increasing trust in the vaccine, you haven’t been paying attention for the last 20 years.
Anyone taking the Sputnik V vaccine needs two doses for the proper resistance to grow; the 10 million doses that the Maduro regime is getting are enough for five million people—in a country of 28 million inhabitants. The message is very clear: if you help the government, you’ll get vaccinated soon. For the Venezuelan regime, vaccines are just another tool in the weaponization of humanitarian aid, something that becomes clear by observing the government’s stance regarding Covax, a mechanism sponsored by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), to facilitate access of undeveloped countries in the region to vaccines.
Accessing COVAX would allow Venezuela to receive between 1.4 and 2.4 million vaccine doses quickly. But the country needs to pay the $18 million debt it holds with the organization first, as well as presenting a rational national immunization plan.
Anyone taking the Sputnik V vaccine needs two doses for the proper resistance to grow; the 10 million doses that the Maduro regime is getting are enough for five million people—in a country of 28 million inhabitants.
Maduro has repeatedly said that his government needs access to Venezuelan funds retained abroad to pay the debt, accusing Juan Guaidó of blocking the operation. However, he also said Venezuela just paid $200 million to guarantee the arrival of 10 million doses of Sputnik V from Russia in the following months.
These contradictions are of little concern when your priority is retaining the loyalty of a relatively small circle of people. For this objective, the available doses seem more than enough.
However, there are reasons to believe other vaccines might eventually arrive in the country.
Recent reports indicate the opposition and the government are in talks to reach a deal regarding Covax, to organize a national vaccination campaign monitored by UNICEF and similar organizations. While this would undoubtedly be great news for the whole country, palpable results are yet to be seen.
Maduro also hinted at the possibility of allowing private companies to import their own vaccines, giving a hand to the wealthy minority of the country, but leaving most of the heavily impoverished population excluded. The government seems ready to apply its recipe for “economic recovery” to public health, as well.
As of February 17th, about 181 million vaccine doses against COVID-19 have been administered globally. Of these, about 8 million have been applied in Latin America, where Chile leads the regional vaccination effort, with 0.94 doses administered per 100,000 people, the third best rate in the world.
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