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Masked pedestrians crowded a sidewalk near a bus stop in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday.

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Scientists rush to defend Venezuelan colleagues threatened over coronavirus study

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Scientific and human rights groups in Venezuela and abroad have rushed to defend the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences (ACFIMAN) after a high-level government official suggested raids or arrests to punish the academy for “causing alarm” in a report that suggested the country’s coronavirus epidemic is far worse than official numbers show.

In the unsigned 18-page report, released on 8 May, scientists at ACFIMAN used mathematical models to estimate the current and future size of the epidemic in the country. As of 30 March, up to 883 people in Venezuela had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they concluded—well above the 135 reported confirmed infections at the time. The report also said the government’s reassurances that it had “flattened the curve” of exponentially increasing infections were wrong. Without additional control measures, Venezuela could see between 1000 and to 4000 cases daily during the pandemic’s expected peak between June and September, according to the study.

The conclusions didn’t sit well with Diosdado Cabello, vice president of the governing Socialist Party and president of the National Constituent Assembly, created by the ruling Socialist Party in 2017 to write a new Venezuelan constitution. On a TV show on 13 May, Cabello—considered by some the second most powerful man in Venezuela after President Nicolás Maduro—called the results “an invitation for state security agencies to call” the scientists. “They presume that the government is lying,” he said. Cabello suggested a “tun tun” operation was in order, referring to arrests and raids by security agencies that target critics of the government.

In the days and weeks since, many have denounced Cabello’s threats. “The response has been massive,” says ACFIMAN President Mireya Goldwasser, a chemical engineer at the Central University of Venezuela. In a 15 May statement, six other Venezuelan research academies—including those devoted to medicine and political and social sciences—called them “unacceptable intimidation” of ACFIMAN members. At least 13 other Venezuelan and international organizations have condemned Cabello’s actions, including the Venezuelan Association for the Advancement of Science and the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stressed the “fundamental role of scientific knowledge and progress in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The threats were also condemned by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who was declared acting president by the National Assembly in 2019 after Maduro won elections widely seen as illegitimate. “The light of science will always be the enemy of the darkness of the dictatorship,” Guaidó tweeted.

Cabello’s threat came just weeks after the health and the science and technology ministries ordered universities and research institutions to seek approval first for all coronavirus-related research—a decision the scientific community regarded as an attack on academic freedom. “It is regrettable that, after 2 decades of deprivation of financial, material, and human resources … [the government] now intends to deprive institutions of their independence to determine what to research,” reads a joint statement released 27 April by seven national academies, including ACFIMAN.

Goldwasser says police or security services have not acted against ACFIMAN or its members so far. But health care workers have been arrested for speaking up about the precarious state of hospitals and for criticizing the government’s weak response to the pandemic, notes José Esparza, a Venezuelan virologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He says Cabello’s intention was to stop scientists from speaking out by instilling fear in them. “People are scared of reprisals,” he says.

Crippled by a deep political and economic crisis, Venezuela is ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Its health system has collapsed, food is scare, and 7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance last year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In an 8 April statement, ACFIMAN predicted COVID-19 would have a “devastating” impact on the Venezuelan population. A March survey among 1014 physicians in the country found that half of them worked in hospitals that lacked sufficient infection control, personal protective equipment, or even water and electricity. About 260,000 Venezuelan refugees in other Latin American countries are expected to return this year after having lost their informal jobs as a result of shutdowns, according to a May report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The one facility certified by the government to do virus testing using the polymerase chain reaction, the Rafael Rangel National Institute of Hygiene, can perform only 100 tests a day—far too few for a country of 28.5 million, according to the ACFIMAN report, which called for testing to be decentralized. Esparza says the government has not certified additional laboratories because it wants to monopolize information about the pandemic. “We know they are lying to us,” Esparza says.

Goldwasser says Cabello’s words have not deterred ACFIMAN, whose scientists will continue to analyze the country’s epidemic. “Our interest is to advise, participate, and help so that we have the most knowledge possible,” she says.

*Clarification, 5 June, 3:15 p.m.: The description of the National Constituent Assembly and Juan Guaidó’s role have been changed to more accurately reflect the political situation in Venezuela.