Cuba poised to become coronavirus vaccine powerhouse

HAVANA, March 30 Cuba is set to claim a medical coup by becoming the world’s smallest country to develop multiple coronavirus vaccines.

The island nation – which has a population of just over 11 million – is currently developing five vaccine candidates, of which two are in late-stage trials, “with the goal of a broader rollout by May”, The Washington Post reports.

The communist government in Havana has said the vaccines “will comply with international standards” and will eventually be sold or donated to other countries, CNN adds.

Cold war fever

As CNN correspondent Patrick Oppmann notes, Cuba is “not known as being a vaccine powerhouse”. But the country has a booming biotechnology industry that dates back to the early 1980s when the country was “dealing with the collapse of the Soviet Union”, Oppmann adds.

Emboldened by CIA-backed coups across South America, and angered by Washington’s trade embargo on his own country, Fidel Castro “vowed to build a biotech juggernaut in the Caribbean”, says The Washington Post.

The then Cuban leader – who is known to have been an avid reader of the New England Journal of Medicine – invested heavily in education and health care, sowing the seeds of “an unusually sophisticated biotechnology apparatus for a small developing country”, the paper continues.

Today, Cuba is home to at least 31 research companies and 62 factories with more than 20,000 workers. These medical plants produce eight of the 11 dengue fever vaccines used domestically, which are also exported to more than 30 other nations.

Indeed, Cuba has “a long history of developing and exporting vaccines” as a result of Castro’s belief that his country had to become self-sufficient if his communist regime was to endure, Global News reports.

Only four years ago, trials of Cuba’s Cimavax immunotherapy treatment against lung cancer were launched at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York.

Arms race

The Cuban government is aiming to “administer experimental Covid-19 shots to nearly the entire population of the capital Havana” – more than two million people – by May, as health authorities carry out “massive interventional studies and late-stage trials”, reports Global News.

The two vaccines already in late-stage trials – Soberana 2 and Abdala – each require two or three doses. But the president of the state company behind the vaccine research, BioCubaFarma chief Eduardo Martinez Diaz, told The Washington Post that the “levels of immunity that both vaccines are generating are high”.

Clinical data will be published shortly, he added.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, has suggested that it could take up to six months for the World Health Organization (WHO) to approve the vaccine candidates.

But provided Soberna 2 and Abdala win regulatory approval, they will be “Latin America’s first home-grown Covid-19 vaccines”, says Global News. The continent has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with Brazil and Mexico recording the second and third highest death tolls in the world, according to the latest data from John Hopkins University.

As CNN’s Oppmann says, the decision by Cuba to develop Covid jabs was a “gamble”, but it “appears to be paying off as you are seeing a race across Latin American to buy a small number of vaccines” still up for grabs.

And that leaves Cuba perfectly placed to become “the pharmacist for nations lumped by Washington into the ‘Axis of Evil’”, according to the Post.

The anti-US countries in line to receive Cuba’s vaccines include Iran and Venezuela, the governments of which have already signed deals with Havana. Iran has also agreed to host phase 3 trials of Soberana 2, in a move that could see “millions of doses manufactured” in the Middle Eastern nation, the paper adds.

Ethical dilemma?

As countries worldwide scramble to secure enough doses to inoculate their populations against the coronavirus, the emergence of promising vaccine candidates in a one-party, authoritarian state poses a conundrum for international leaders.

While Iran is unlikely to balk at Cuba’s poor human rights record, elsewhere the Covid jabs breakthroughs could serve to “soften the image of a country that’s being accused of doing some pretty bad things”, says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society.

“It undermines the message that Cuba is a broadly authoritarian country that can’t produce anything good,” Farnworth told the Post.

However, the Cuban government is also facing scrutiny over a recent crackdown on “free-speech protests led by artists, poets, and gay rights activists, known as the San Isidro movement”, the paper adds.

Human Rights Watch reports that Havana “represses and punishes dissent and public criticism”, with measures deployed against critics including “beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, short-term detention, fines, online harassment, surveillance, and termination of employment”.

On the other side of the argument, Cuba has an established history of offering medical assistance to countries as part of what it calls “medical internationalism”. In March last year, a 53-strong medical team was dispatched to Lombardy as the Italian region was engulfed by the devastating first wave of coronavirus in Europe.

At the time, the US Department of State tweeted that Cuba’s aim was to “make up the money it lost when countries stopped participating in the abusive program” and that countries accepting aid should “scrutinize agreements and end labor abuses”.

But with a string of wealthier nations now accused of hoarding Covid vaccine supplies, the world’s developing countries may not be able to afford to be choosy about how they secure much-needed doses. (www.theweek.co.uk/news )