Why Do the Cuban COVID-19 Vaccines Get No Press?

How the Caribbean island may become the world’s smallest country to develop not just one, but multiple coronavirus vaccines.

In Cuba, the vaccines are all they’ve talked about during the course of the pandemic, which devastated the island less than elsewhere, mostly because the tourism industry shut down and the borders closed in March 2020. The economic impact has been drastic, as the economy shrunk by 11% in 2020.

The closing of the borders to tourism came after over 240 new measures by President Trump to strengthen the decades-long economic embargo against the island. These further limited the possibility for Americans to visit the island and put a stranglehold on the essential flow of money sent by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island. Days before leaving office, he put Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, in a move intended to delay any move by President Biden to build relations with Cuba.

Even while thousands of Cuban medical specialists have treated COVID-19 patients in over 40 countries, goods shortages on the island have made long, exhausting queues part of life’s daily grind, with Cubans rising at 4am to get in line. Poor agricultural production and the pandemic have exacerbated scarcity.

Prices skyrocketed after the necessary, but horribly timed, unification of Cuba’s two currencies on 1 January 2021, and numbers of COVID-19 daily cases are higher than ever. One year after the start of lockdown here, everything is closed, there is a 9pm-5am curfew, children are not officially allowed out, beaches are closed and people are still reminded to stay home, if they can avoid the need to go and stand in a line.

So it may come as a surprise that, while the island is suffering the worst shortages of food and medicine in 25 years, since the fall of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s, Cuba’s well-developed biotech sector has been busy developing 5 vaccine candidates for combating COVID-19. One of these, SOBERANA 2 (SOVEREIGNTY 2), has finished third-stage trials and is already going into the arms of frontline healthcare workers.

In March, Cuban officials said wider trials would include the entire adult population of Havana, nearly two million people, and the epicenter of the virus on the island. By August, half the island’s population, about six million, would receive the vaccines, officials said. This is not such an impossible task. Cuba has over 27,000 doctors for a population of 11m people, the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world.

Finally, this past week, the Washington Post and CNN recognised this reality, the first positive mention of Cuba I’ve seen in the US press for some time.

“Against the odds, Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse”.
The Cuban vaccine could be a “viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international scrum for coronavirus vaccines”.
Washington Post, March 31, 2021

“Despite a worsening economy and increased US sanctions, the communist-run island has pulled off a feat no other Latin American country can claim to date: the development of five Covid-19 vaccine candidates, two of which that are in their final phase three trials”.
CNN, March 31, 2021

Patrick Oppmann, CNN’s man in Havana, refers to the famous Cuban musical duo Buena Fe penning a song about the vaccines, singing that the drugs were like “brave David confronting the bully Goliath.”

Cuba began investing money in biotechnology in the 1980s, as part of Fidel Castro’s push to make the nation self-sufficient in the face of a U.S. embargo that made it difficult to obtain foreign-produced drugs. After the 1981 dengue fever outbreak struck nearly 350,000 Cubans, the government established the Biological Front, an effort to focus research efforts by various agencies toward specific goals. There are now 21 research centers and 32 companies employing some 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma. Cuba has produced a variety of medicines exported globally, but that most Americans have little knowledge of.

The Biological Front’s first major accomplishment was the successful (and unexpected) production of interferon, a protein that plays a role in human immune response, and is one of the medicines used and exported to treat COVID-19. The decision was taken was to introduce Interferon alfa 2b very early in Cuban treatment protocols due to the evidence of its antiviral and immune-enhancing capacity. By May 2020 Cuba credited the medicine for helping it achieve a lower mortality rate among its then 1,804 confirmed COVID-19 cases — 4.1% versus an average of 5.9% for the rest of the Americas.

Eight of the 12 vaccines administered to Cuban children are home-manufactured and the island exports them to more than 30 countries.

Another drug produced, Heberprot-P, helps treat diabetic foot ulcers. It’s used in 18 countries, and is undergoing trial in the European Union, but the embargo has kept it out of the US.

One Cuban product to already make it stateside is the lung cancer vaccine CIMAvax-EGF, that Cuban researchers began work on in the 1990s. Patients in Cuba began receiving the vaccine free in 2011, and it has been administered to more than 4,000 patients worldwide.

In 2015, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York signed an agreement to import CIMAvax and thus became the first American research center to sponsor its clinical trial — a historic collaboration between Cuban and American scientists. This was the subject of a PBS documentary ‘Cuba’s Cancer Hope’, screened in April 2020. The move couldn’t come fast enough for some American cancer sufferers, who had already taken matters into their own hands.

Cuban television doesn’t have adverts in between programmes, marketing products. This is an island with no commercial advertising. What we get instead are musical videoclips singing the praises of the Cuban health system, reminding people to stay home or use masks, giving us hope about the vaccine. It’s supposed to feel good and remind Cubans of the achievements of the Revolution. Throughout the pandemic in Cuba we got to know Dr Francisco Duran, pictured below receiving his first jab, the now-famous doctor leading the 9am daily press conference to report on the latest coronavirus news.

However much I view this programming with a pince of salt, it is safe to say that the sense of social responsibility and community engendered by these messages has had a positive impact on maintaining lower numbers of infection. In Cuba, everyone has worn masks since the start of the pandemic, people take measures to protect those less vulnerable, COVID was never viewed as ‘just a cold’, the sense has been of a community fighting this together, and if that involves losing personal freedoms, it is seen as a price worth paying.

Now the vaccine is here, and other countries, particularly those that can’t afford it — or for political reasons don’t want to accept vaccines from Western countries — are hoping Cuba’s promised cheap and easy to store vaccines can make up the difference.

As a British citizen, I’ve been invited to get my jab in the UK already, but the travel situation is so complicated, we’ve decided to just wait it out here until our turn arrives to get vaccinated in Havana. Yes, food shortages are no walk in the park and I’d kill for a British chicken curry and fries, but at least, there is no lack of vitamin D, the sunshine and fresh sea air is free, and there is no queue for that.

Lifelong multi-lingual traveller, writer, learner, teacher. Raising my little girl in Cuba and Europe and cannot wait to show her the world.

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