The Second Wave of COVID-19 in Venezuela

Desperate people looking online for oxygen concentrators or money for treatment, more and more complaints over the low availability of hospital beds and concern about the Brazilian variant, even inside the regime. What do we actually know?

Photo: Cristian Hernández

What’s the Brazilian variant of COVID-19?

The new Brazilian variant (P1) is a SARS-CoV-2 form with some mutations on the proteins that the virus uses to infect human cells. These mutations make the virus easier to catch and gives it a chance to evade, at least partially, the immunological response. This could help explain the recent rise in cases in Manaus, Brazil. The current in vitro evidence suggests that the virus could be more resistant to some of the existing vaccines, although it’s possible that they’re still effective against the disease.

The thing is, we have no certainty on the Brazilian variant’s extension in Venezuela. To identify such a thing among the population, you’d have to sequence the virus genome that’s isolated from patients. We don’t know how many labs in the nation can actually sequence the virus (something considerably harder and more expensive than running a PCR test). Maduro was the one to announce that the Brazilian variant was present in Venezuela and the Science Ministry has detected at least 56 cases, but we know little else beyond that. There may be other variants going around the population (some even originating in Venezuela), still undetected.

How many people are infected with coronavirus in Venezuela?

We can get a notion just by looking at a sector that’s particularly vulnerable: healthcare workers. Apparently, the medical sector figures are the only reliable indicator we have in Venezuela about the evolution of the pandemic. Up until March 15th, 360 sanitary workers had passed away from COVID-19, according to data from NGO Médicos Unidos Venezuela.

On the rest of the population, we can only speculate. Mathematical models from the UK’s Imperial College suggest that the number of cases in the country are way higher than the official figures, between the 2,500 to 7,000 new daily cases, even though most of these are mild to asymptomatic. These approximations are based on the number of daily deaths reported by the government.

The same model also estimates that the disease’s effective reproductive number (Re) is between 0,89 to 1,16; The Re estimates the number of secondary cases generated by each coronavirus patient. As long as it’s over 1, the epidemic grows, and once the indicator goes below this threshold, cases start to disappear. These assessments must be read with a grain of salt, since they assume that all deaths from COVID-19 are being reported, and that patients who recovered from a previous infection remain immune, which isn’t necessarily true if new variants are going around the nation.

How’s the vaccination going in Venezuela?

Venezuela began vaccinating healthcare workers and, according to Maduro himself, military personnel and politicians on February 19th. The country is using both the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and China’s Sinopharm. In total, 700,000 doses have been administered. We have no official figures on how many people have been vaccinated.

Recently, the regime announced its intention to include schoolteachers and sanitary personnel from private hospitals in the vaccination plans. They’re also saying that the AstraZeneca vaccine (part of the COVAX mechanism) won’t be authorized, following the already dispelled controversy from some European regulatory agencies. The Delegate Commission of the 2015 National Assembly announced it’ll allow the use of frozen funds outside of Venezuela to pay for the COVAX vaccine. We’ll see if the opposition can really coordinate the authorization and import of the AstraZeneca vaccine with the regime. 

Generally speaking, how’s Venezuela doing with COVID-19?

Following official figures and comparing it to the curves from neighboring Colombia and Brazil, you can tell that Venezuela took some time to report cases and entered a rough second wave. In these graphs, with official info on daily cases gathered by Johns Hopkins University up until March 16th, we can compare the curves at four key points in these three nations: tha last day of the pandemic’s first month in the region; the summer peak; the valley after the first wave and the new daily cases situation up until March, 16th, 2021.

Brazil has a particularly dire context of healthcare system saturation and is, right now, the most worrisome country in the world regarding the impact of the pandemic.

Colombia, deeply connected with Venezuela due to migration and bilateral informal commerce, has much higher official figures than Venezuela, and will offer vaccines to migrants.

Venezuela has finally reported a second wave, like many other nations have. The worst case scenarios can actually happen now. Everyone should take care of themselves.