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Latin American leaders seek more vaccines at Andorra summit

The President of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, center and Pedro Sanchez listen as Spain's King Felipe VI makes a speech during the Latin American leaders' summit in Andorra la Valla in Andorra, on April 20, 2021. (Alberto Estevez/Pool via AP)

MADRID (AP) -- Representatives of 22 countries from Latin America and Europe's Iberian Peninsula, in their first, mostly virtual meeting since the pandemic started, called for more equitable access to coronavirus vaccines and flexible funding for their economic recovery.

    Frictions emerged over the participation of Venezuela's government in the Iberoamerican Summit hosted Wednesday by the tiny mountainous nation of Andorra, which lies between Spain and France in the Pyrenees mountain range.

    But the countries spoke with one voice assessing the crisis provoked by the virus outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, calling for unity in overcoming economic and health challenges ahead.

    Many of the leaders were critical of global mechanisms for vaccine distribution that have brought to the Latin American region of 640 million just about 8% of the doses distributed across the world, most of them to a handful of countries. That's despite the disproportionate impact of the pandemic in the region, which accounts for nearly 30% of confirmed global COVID-19 deaths.

    Calling for a suspension of vaccine and drug patents, Bolivia's President Luis Arce called for a reshuffle of "international standards that protect the hegemonic pharmaceutical industry at the expense of billions of human beings." Argentina's Alberto Fernandez said that patent protection should be guaranteed but that temporary licenses should be issued for increasing jab production.

    "Intellectual property rights should help rather than getting on our way," said Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, one of the few leaders who attended the summit in person. Sanchez announced that his government will donate a minimum of 7.5 million vaccine doses for Latin American and Caribbean countries through the U.N.-sponsored COVAX mechanism for lower-income countries. The Spanish leader said that the donation won't happen until Spain vaccinates at least half of its adult population, which under the current rollout speed would be July.

    U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was alarmed by the unequal distribution of vaccines.

    "If this dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism and parallel deals continues, vaccination in developing countries could take years, delaying, even more, the world's recovery," Guterres told the leaders. "The vaccination campaign is the main moral challenge of our times."

    The summit's final declaration didn't include any reference to vaccine patents. Instead, the leaders urged the international community and big pharma to "face the pandemic in a more equitable way and with solidarity" and to provide "universal access at affordable costs" of vaccines and drugs against COVID-19.

    The meeting normally takes place every two years. It was due to be held last year but was delayed in the hope of gathering the heads of state and government of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in person. A recent surge in virus infections across the world has finally resulted in most leaders attending via video conference.

    Nicaragua and Venezuela informed organizers at the very last minute that their presidents would not participate, joining the leaders of Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay and El Salvador, which instead sent their deputies or lower-ranking officials.

    Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has been recently appointed First Secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, denounced the sanctions that the United States has imposed on both his country and neighboring Venezuela, adding that Washington had increased enforcement at a difficult time of health emergency.

    Various country representatives --including those of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay-- criticized Venezuela's presence at the summit and called for Nicolas Maduro to step down and pave the way for elections in the troubled country.

    Venezuela's Vice President Delcy Rodriguez responded saying that "those who speak about democracy should respect the sacred will of the Venezuelan people."

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