(Adds comment from Venezuelan health official)
By Cassandra Garrison, Diego Oré and Brian Ellsworth
MEXICO CITY/CARACAS, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The timeline has closed for Venezuela to join the COVAX facility for COVID-19 vaccines, an official with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Tuesday, though the country was still negotiating for doses through other means.
Venezuela, where pandemic lockdowns aggravated an already-severe economic crisis, expressed interest in joining COVAX, according Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies for PAHO, the regional arm of the World Health Organization (WHO).
"However, this is not possible due to lack of resources and timely payments," Ugarte told a virtual press conference. "The time to be able to join the COVAX mechanism has passed."
The COVAX mechanism, coordinated by WHO and the GAVI vaccines alliance to support poorer countries, is funded by donor countries, multilateral lenders such as the World Bank, and private charities. COVAX has secured deals for 2 billion vaccine doses to be deployed this year, PAHO officials said.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said the country will receive 10 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
Lawyers for Venezuela's central bank said the country has been unable to make payments required to participate in COVAX because sanctions have left funds frozen in foreign bank accounts. Last week, they said opposition leader Juan Guaido had rejected a plan under which funds held in London could pay its contribution to COVAX, which Guaido allies deny.
Being locked out of COVAX will leave Venezuela dependent on the Russian vaccine at a time when health services are collapsing, and the economic crisis has raised doubt about the country's capacity to conduct a vaccination campaign.
Venezuelan Health Minister Carlos Alvarado, at a digital conference on Tuesday, blamed the United States and its allies for a "blockade" imposed on its funds, which he said totaled more than $30 billion.
"At this time, we are not in a position to use them even for access to the vaccine as we have requested on many occasions," Alvarado said.
Washington in 2019 launched a sanctions program against Venezuela that led to hundreds of millions in Venezuelan funds being frozen in bank accounts in the United States and Britain.
Some of those funds were officially put under the control of Guaido, who more than 50 countries have recognized as Venezuela's legitimate president. But obtaining permits to spend the money has been complicated.
A sustained surge in coronavirus infections in the Americas shows the region is failing to control the spread of the virus, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne told the press conference.
The region recorded 2.5 million new COVID-19 cases and related 42,000 deaths in the last week. From Mexico to Chile, health systems are being strained to their limits, Etienne said.
"I am particularly concerned for the next few weeks," she said, noting that new coronavirus variants found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil may be increasing infections. "Many hospitals are operating at or very close to capacity." (Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Diego Ore Oviedo in Mexico City, Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Mark Heinrich and David Gregorio)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.