TODAY CUBA – Havana. It’s a gamble that may sound crazy, but experienced Cuban researchers have focused on the task of developing the first coronavirus vaccine conceived and produced in Latin America.
“We have the capacity to manufacture 100 million doses” in 2021 of Soberana 2, the most advanced vaccine project, said on Wednesday Dr. Vicente Vérez, director of the Finlay vaccine institute.
“If all goes well, this year we will have the entire population vaccinated,” said the doctor.
The country is one of the least affected in the region by the pandemic with 19,530 registered cases and 184 deaths (Thursday, January 21), among a population of 11.2 million inhabitants.
Soberana 2 moved to phase II on Monday, with the collaboration of 900 volunteers. If successful, it would enter phase III (the last before approval), with 150,000 volunteers in March.
The objective is to launch the vaccination campaign in the first semester. For Cubans the vaccine would be free, but not mandatory. It would also be an “option” for tourists, said Vérez.
In a country where a quarter of the budget is spent on healthcare and doctors are seen as heroes, participating in trials became a civic duty.
Madielin García, a fifty-year-old who was selected, told local television news she was “very excited because that is a very big step.”
Cuban scientists are working on four vaccines: Soberana 1 and 2, Abdala (named after a dramatic poem by national hero José Martí), and Mambisa (named after Cuban women during the struggle for independence in the 19th century).
The first three are given by injection and the fourth by nasal spray.
Cuba “has been the first candidate in Latin America and the Caribbean to place its vaccine in the clinical phase,” said José Moya, local representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), who expressed optimism.
The reason for his optimism comes from the fact that “Cuba has more than 30 years of producing its own vaccines. Almost 80% of the vaccines in Cuba’s national immunization program are produced in the country.”
As a result of a US embargo imposed since 1962, the Island has had to seek its own remedies.
“In the 1980s, itopted for biotechnology, discovering the first vaccine against meningococcus B,” said Nils Graber, a researcher in health anthropology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
“The objective was both to improve the national health system and to be an exporter,” he added, citing the delivery of treatments that Cuba has made to Latin America, Asia and Africa.
The export of medical services – medicines, vaccines and medical personnel – is currently Cuba’s main source of income, with US$6.3 billion in 2018. In 2020, the country sent medical brigades to 40 countries to fight the coronavirus.
“The population would have perceived in a very surprising and regrettable way that Cuba would have had to import a Russian or Chinese vaccine,” according to the researcher.
Sending its doctors abroad and manufacturing its own vaccine “is also a policy that increases the prestige of the country.”
Geopolitics is never far from Cuban medicine. On January 8, the Finlay Institute and the Pasteur Institute of Iran signed an agreement to test the effectiveness of Sovereign 2 in phase III.
“Cuba’s vaccine will be the ALBA vaccine” (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) – Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America –, said the vice president of Venezuela, Delcy Rodríguez, during a recent visit to Havana.
ALBA is made up of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Venezuela offers its “production capacity” to supply the alliance countries, although “of course Cuba will be able to offer its vaccine to the world,” she added.
According to Moya, the Cuban vaccine “has been prequalified by PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), it would be placed within the revolving vaccine fund, which is the procurement mechanism that PAHO has with the countries of the Americas to access vaccines with opportunity and at a reasonable price.”
“Laboratories have already reserved almost all their production for the year and it is mainly the richest countries that have bought it, so these (Cuban) vaccines will be necessary.”
WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned this week that the world risks facing “catastrophic moral failure” if rich countries monopolize vaccines at the expense of poor countries.