Hit by the double blow of US sanctions and a pandemic, Cuba is going through its gravest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pharmacy shelves are empty. People queue for hours to buy chicken. It is difficult to find bread.
And yet this besieged island could become the smallest country in the world to develop its own coronavirus vaccines. Of the 27 coronavirus vaccines in final testing worldwide, two are Cuban.
“To have our sovereignty we need our own vaccines,” said Dr. Vicente Vérez, director of the Finlay Institute, which has developed Sovereign 2, the most advanced of the five candidate vaccines in the country. “In nine months we have gone from an idea to a vaccine in phase three clinical trials.”
44,000 volunteers in Havana are currently participating in phase three trials for Sovereign 2. A similar number in the eastern city of Santiago volunteer for phase three of Abdala, a vaccine named after a poem by José Martí, the Official “national hero” of the island.
Along with the clinical studies is an “interventionist study” in which 150,000 health workers are being vaccinated in Havana.
Cuba’s “Biological Front” was established in 1981, just five years after the incorporation of the world’s first biotechnology company, Genentech. At the heart of the current campaign for a vaccine are the island’s leading scientists, many of whom were trained in the former Soviet Union. These internationally mobile polyglots have every opportunity to emigrate (and many do); those who chose to work on the island are almost always old-school believers.
In a recent press conference, Dr. Vérez explained what drives him by quoting Ernesto “Ché” Guevarra. “The true revolutionary,” he said, “is guided by a great feeling of love.”
Dr. Gerardo Guillén, who leads the development of two vaccines at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, is a chocolate addict who has had to do without his favorite solution for more than a year (there are none in stores). His salary of 200 pounds a month is one hundred times less than what he could earn abroad.
“We have offers,” said Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a Chicago-born neurologist who is part of the country’s Coronavirus Task Force. “But we prefer to stay because we feel a commitment to the development of our country. We are not working to make a CEO obscenely rich; we are working to make people healthier. “
Such idealism does not protect against bitter geopolitical realities.
The US embargo on Cuba restricts the medical equipment that the island can import. The different Cuban research teams working on vaccines share a single spectrometer, an essential machine for quality control, powerful enough to analyze the chemical structure of a vaccine. But since the British manufacture of the spectrometer, Micromass, was bought by an American company, Waters, they have not been able to buy replacement parts directly.
While the UN human rights rapporteurs asked the US. lift sanctions on the island during the pandemic, in the last twelve months the embargo has intensified.
And since the outgoing Trump administration included Cuba on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states in January, simply finding a bank willing to process payments has become a bigger problem.
“The United States is trying to starve Cuba,” Valdés-Sosa said. “It’s not just that it’s difficult to buy things directly from the United States. It is also that all these sanctions that the Trump administration implemented have dried up many sources of income. “
Cuba reported 12,225 confirmed cases and 146 deaths last year, among the lowest case and death rates in the hemisphere. But an error occurred in November when commercial flights finally resumed after seven long months, for a few weeks the government did not require visitors to undergo PCR tests before boarding the planes. The effect was lethal: Thousands of Cuban Americans came from Covid hot spots like Florida to hug, kiss and dance with their families over the Christmas period, prompting an increase in cases.
More cases were reported in January alone than in all of 2020, and the island now has an average of 1,000 confirmed cases per day.
With around 100,000 Cubans who have received the prick so far, the island is behind the average vaccine deployment in Latin America of 12% of people who have received at least one dose. And without a vaccine yet fully approved for use by the island’s regulator, critics say the Communist Party’s decision not to join Covax, the UN-backed mechanism for distributing doses of Covid-19 fairly throughout the world, was arrogant and left them unnecessarily exposed.
Cuba aims to manufacture 100 million doses of Sovereign 2 this year, enough for the population with surplus to export.
When production obstacles are overcome, distribution logistics should be a strong point: the island has a well-developed infrastructure of local community clinics, and the the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world.
Cuban scientists are confident that widespread vaccination will be achieved this year and say that Cuba will be among the first countries in the hemisphere to do so.
“When you have everything, you don’t have to think so much.” Dr. Guillén said, “But when you have difficulties, you have to think of new ways to innovate.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism