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Vaccinations Advance in Central America, Ortega Government Silent

Nicaragua has ample experience and capacity to administer COVID-19 vaccines, but specialists wonder if there’s political will.

The government of Daniel Ortega remains absolutely silent about the process of acquiring a COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, some other Central American countries, among them neighboring Costa Rica, began vaccinating in December. Other countries in the region are preparing the terrain to begin. The latter hope to begin the immunizations as soon as the vaccines arrive in their countries.

El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are among ten countries set to receive the vaccines at no cost. This would be through the COVAX global initiative set up by the World Health Organization. Information on Covax has been public knowledge since December. However, the Ortega regime hasn’t yet offered any further information on Nicaragua’s plans.

On January 4th, the Nicaraguan Health Ministry offered a report on health emergencies and attention during the past holiday season. They made no reference to the COVID-19 vaccine, even though it’s one of the most pressing necessities worldwide.

Infectious disease specialist Carlos Quant informed Confidencial that no one knows anything about the government’s preparations for vaccinating.  The public is unaware if the government plans to acquire the COVID-19 vaccines through Covax, or through some other source.

Status of the vaccine in other Central American countries

Guatemala has advanced 15% of the funds set aside for the purchase of 6.74 million doses. These would cover 3.37 million people, equal to 20% of the country’s population. This data was made available by Guatemala’s Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance. Guatemalan authorities recognized in November that they would be unable to make use of the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. This vaccine requires storage at temperatures well below freezing.

Alejandro Giammattei, Guatemala’s president, announced the national vaccine plans at the end of December. He stated at the time that he would present a bill to the Guatemalan Congress the first week in January. The bill would allow the direct purchase of 2.5 million vaccine doses.

Meanwhile, according to local media, Honduras will work through the Covax mechanism to purchase an additional 1.4 million vaccines. These will come from the AstraZenneca manufacturer. President Juan Orlando Hernandez estimates that the doses the country receives free will cover 20% of the population – 1,890,142 Hondurans.

Honduras, Nicaragua’s neighbor on the north, hopes to have the vaccines by the second trimester of the year. Meanwhile, the government has presented their National Plan for Introduction of the COVID-19 Vaccine. The plan defines four prioritized groups for immunization. As in other countries, Honduran medical personnel and other health workers will be the first to receive the vaccine.

Francisco Alabi, El Salvador’s Health Minister, declared at the beginning of this year that the government would be vaccinating 4.5 million people. They’re planning to acquire nine million doses from different companies. The first two million will be arriving through an agreement with AstroZeneca and the University of Oxford.

Costa Rica is ahead of the rest of the region and began vaccinating with the new year. As of this moment, 2,455 Costa Ricans have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Carlos Alvarado’s government has already acquired three million doses, enough to protect 1.5 million people. The first shipment contained 9,750 doses and shipments of 33,150 doses a week have been scheduled, beginning in January.

The Panamanian government announced in December that they’d negotiated the purchase of three million vaccine doses from the Pfizer company. In addition, 1.92 million doses would be coming from AstraZeneca, following government negotiations with the Johnson & Johnson company. They have still not begun the process of vaccinating, however.

The wait for the vaccine could stretch out

The Central American countries hope that the COVID-19 vaccines will become available in the first semester of 2021. However, the real timeline isn’t clear. The Economist published an analysis in mid-December. In it, they indicated that there wouldn’t be enough vaccines to cover the world’s population until 2023 or 2024.

The Covax initiative seeks to guarantee an equitable distribution of vaccines to countries, as doses becomes available. Nonetheless, by December, the highest income countries had already confirmed four billion doses. The upper-middle income countries had secured 1.1 billion doses, and the lower-middle income countries contracted 2 billion doses.  The Covax initiative secured 700 million doses for the low-income countries.

At present, purchases have been concentrated in the richest countries: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Germany, France and Spain.

What has the Ortega government said?

In August 2020, Vice President Rosario Murillo affirmed that Nicaragua would be producing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Production would take place through the Latin American Institute of Mechnikov Biotechnology. This is a vaccine plant installed in Nicaragua with Russian technology. Specialists have cast doubt on this due to the lack of capacity and experience with this type of processing. Months later, it’s still not known if there’s been any progress. In December, Ivan Acosta, Nicaragua’s Finance Minister, declared that the country had 107 million dollars for acquiring vaccines. He didn’t mention which companies they were negotiating with.

Carlos Quant recognizes that Nicaragua has broad experience in vaccinating the population. Past vaccine coverage has been greater than 70% of the population. However, Dr. Quant felt, the country is “pretty far from being able to immunize all Nicaraguans.” This would require “a lot of money, a big investment, vaccine availability, and technical readiness.”

Until 2022, the country might only have enough vaccines for a tiny segment of the population, the specialist estimates. Those vaccines could be given to the high-risk population: those over 60, health workers, and those suffering from chronic illnesses.

Epidemiologist Alvaro Ramirez added that Nicaragua has the experience and the installed capacity to vaccinate against COVID-19. The problem, he felt, was more one of “political will”. The solution requires a government decision to protect the Nicaraguan people.

Quant agreed that there’s broad acceptance of vaccines in the country. The limitations are, instead, the government’s will to acquire these, and the international availability of the vaccines.

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