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Maduro touts miracle cure to mask massive problem: Venezuela can’t (or won’t) get vaccines

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro last month promoting Carvativir, which his government says can cure covid-19. (Miraflores Palace/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — The president announced the "medical breakthrough" with a pitch that could school a QVC presenter.

Neutralize the coronavirus without a single side effect! No needle? No problem! Just a few drops of the magic liquid under the tongue every four hours and it’s goodbye, lockdown; hello, good health.

“From Venezuela to the world,” Nicolás Maduro declared in a national address, unveiling two shimmering vials of Carvativir.

Venezuelan medical professionals now say that Maduro’s “miracle drops” — which he pledged would rapidly go into mass production — are actually an extract of the herb thyme, used in homeopathic therapies and ordinary cooking.

Yet one aspect of the marketing blitz did ring true. More than any other nation in the Western Hemisphere, this broken socialist state might need a miracle to defeat the novel coronavirus.

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Venezuela is so far behind in sourcing vaccine that analysts say it could be 2023 or later before it acquires enough to achieve herd immunity. That places it in the bottom rung of nations — alongside authoritarian peers North Korea, Syria and Myanmar — where widespread vaccination campaigns are not expected until long after the rest of the globe has regained a semblance of normal life.

For a country that was locked in a humanitarian crisis long before the pandemic and where two men — Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaidó — claim to be president, the problems are both economic and political. More than two decades of mismanagement and corruption have emptied state coffers, broken the health-care system and sent the once lucrative oil sector into a death spiral. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in state assets remain frozen by nations, including the United States, that oppose Maduro’s socialist government.

Maduro claims that the opposition’s resistance to unfreezing those assets — and U.S. sanctions that hinder financing and purchasing — have left his government without the resources it needs to compete in the global scrum for coronavirus vaccine.

Critics counter that the autocratic Maduro is purposely dragging his feet on vaccine acquisitions, seeking to portray the nation as a victim in the hope of winning sanctions relief from the new Biden administration.

As the sides lock horns, the Venezuelan people may be running out of time. Maduro’s government missed a critical deadline last month to buy into a World Health Organization-linked program designed to help developing nations obtain supplies of coronavirus vaccine. Paolo Balladelli, the WHO’s Venezuela chief, tweeted last week that the government still could get up to 2.4 million doses — a decent start for a country of 28.5 million — if it bought into the program by Tuesday. It did not. On Wednesday, officials with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Latin American arm of the WHO, said they could be “flexible” with the payment timetable.

But talks between Maduro and the opposition to reach a grand accord have bogged down. Neither side is projecting optimism.

“We are in frenzied discussions with anyone we can reach to move this forward because of what the consequences will be for the Venezuelan population,” said Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies at the PAHO. “What we want is for the Venezuelan population to get vaccines, and as we see now, that is not possible yet.”

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In a search for answers, Maduro’s government is venturing into magical realism, peddling homegrown remedies including herbal teas and miracle drops in an attempt to calm a long-suffering populace. When presenting Carvativir to the nation last month, Maduro claimed he could not reveal the identity of the drug’s inventor, even as he brandished a book that named the scientist on national television.

That book, easily found online, identified Raúl Ojeda as the head researcher behind a compound that contains the active ingredient isothymol. The back cover describes Ojeda as a “writer, poet, altruist and biochemical researcher,” and identifies him as an employee of Labfarven, a laboratory that produces the drops and, according to corporate records, used to sell auto parts.

Venezuelan doctors were initially cautious in their assessments of a compound that they say has been used in mouthwashes and antiseptics to kill bacteria. After exploring Ojeda’s findings, they are now calling Maduro’s claims not only false but dangerous. Maduro has dismissed the criticism, saying that “envy” has “unleashed a brutal campaign against Carvativir.”

Ojeda did not respond to an interview request.

Enrique López Loyo, head of the Venezuelan Academy of Medicine, called the drops “a smokescreen around the imperative need for vaccines.”

“People could think, ‘Well, I'm taking my miracle drops, so I'm protected,’ and then have the audacity to not take any other precautions,” he said.

Perhaps sensing that Carvativir may not be enough, Maduro’s government is also turning to the long-demonized private sector for a financial remedy. Officials are exploring whether private companies may be able to help the government navigate around the barriers to financing and funds transfers that have been erected by U.S. sanctions.

Without another solution, Venezuela will be left with few options for ending the pandemic.

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The government has signed a contract for 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Maduro said Tuesday that the first 100,000 doses would arrive soon. Some Chinese vaccine, the government has noted vaguely, could be forthcoming, but how many doses remained unclear.

Venezuela’s last, best hope might be the eventual success of one or more of the vaccines being developed by communist Cuba. But analysts say such help remains untold months away.

The Cuban remedy “is a vaccine made for us, to the rhythm of the guaguancó, under the heat of the Caribbean,” Maduro assured his compatriots, referring to a subgenre of Cuban rumba.

Because of good fortune, a lack of testing or bad reporting, Venezuela’s coronavirus statistics have thus far proved better than its neighbors’. The country has registered 127,000 cases of infection and fewer than 1,200 deaths — far below the 2.9 million infections and nearly 54,000 deaths reported by neighboring Colombia. Yet, as shown by the spike in cases in Cuba, which had largely managed to control the virus until recent weeks, Venezuela remains at high risk of calamity.

Maduro’s government claims that U.S. sanctions and resistance from the domestic opposition have made it impossible to fulfill almost any financial commitment to buy vaccine. U.S. sanctions contain exceptions for medicines and food. But Jorge Arreaza, Maduro’s foreign minister, told The Washington Post that businesses and banks are too fearful of running afoul of Washington to do business with Venezuela.

“We have not been able to pay [for vaccine] by any means,” Arreaza said. “We are banned from using the financial system. No bank will receive Venezuelan money, for fear of sanctions.”

In December, attorneys representing Venezuela’s central bank sought to free funds frozen in Britain to cover an $18.1 million initial payment and a $101.8 million promissory note required to secure vaccine through Covax, the WHO-linked program for low- and middle-income countries to obtain vaccine supplies. Maduro’s government requested the support of Guaidó’s opposition for its petition, arguing that Venezuelan lives were at stake and asking that the funds be transferred directly to Covax.

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The opposition refused, saying Maduro clearly has other means to pay. The battered oil industry still can generate hundreds of millions of dollars a month, and officials have spoken of buying weapons from Iran.

There also is the issue of trust.

The opposition and U.S. officials cite a deal Guaidó’s team cut with Maduro to unfreeze 2.5 million euros in Spain to pay for shipments of 340,000 coronavirus test kits and processing machines through the PAHO in October.

The opposition and the PAHO say the test kits did not arrive at the hospitals the sides had agreed to and instead were diverted to government labs. Only about 2 percent of those tests have been used, they say.

“We have no idea where the rest are,” said infectious-disease physician Julio Castro, the main adviser to the opposition in the fight against the coronavirus.

Arreaza denied those assertions, saying that only a few antigen testing machines were shipped to different locations, under the direction of regional health officials.

“Everything from last year’s agreement was fulfilled,” he said.

The PAHO’s Ugarte said a separate deal with the opposition and Maduro’s government to bring $10 million worth of personal protective equipment and medicines into Venezuela to address the pandemic had been more successful, with “about 80 percent” of the aid reaching its intended destination.

Maduro has long been accused of politicizing foreign assistance. A shipment of humanitarian aid from the World Food Program, for example, has been delayed for months by his government’s insistence on controlling the distribution. Authorities have cracked down on private charities sidestepping the government to help the poor or sick directly.

Access to funds, Guaidó told reporters in Caracas last week, is not the problem. “That’s the dictatorship’s propaganda to try to excuse itself and point fingers and confuse the whole world,” he said.

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The Biden administration, which has signaled that it has no immediate plans for direct talks with Maduro, has nevertheless suggested it might be more flexible than the Trump administration was in addressing the country’s humanitarian crisis.

U.S. officials say Maduro’s government cannot be trusted to distribute coronavirus vaccine. But they say they are prepared to consider issuing special licenses that would grant vaccine makers explicit exemptions from U.S. sanctions.

Ugarte suggested that if Maduro and the opposition could reach a deal, missed payment deadlines could be forgiven.

“This is a very polarized situation, and both sides need to come to an agreement,” he said. “If they manage to pay for the vaccines, I don’t see how Covax could deny their request.”

Faiola reported from Miami.

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