It is a gamble that may seem crazy: on the strength of its long experience, Cuba has given its researchers the mission of producing the first anti-coronavirus vaccine designed and produced in Latin America, something of interest to other countries.
“We have the capacity to manufacture 100 million doses” of Soberana 2, the most advanced vaccine candidate, in 2021, Dr Vicente Vérez, director of the Finlay vaccination institute, assured Wednesday. “If all goes well, this year the entire Cuban population will be vaccinated.”
The country, one of the least affected in the region by the pandemic, has 19,122 cases including 180 deaths, for 11.2 million inhabitants.
On Monday, Soberana 2 moved to phase IIb, which involves 900 volunteers. If successful, it would enter phase III (the last before approval), with 150,000 volunteers, in March.
The aim is to launch the vaccination campaign in the first half of the year: for Cubans, the vaccine would be free but not compulsory. It would also be offered as an “option” to tourists, according to Doctor Vérez.
In this country where a quarter of the budget is spent on health and where doctors are seen as heroes, participating in the trials is seen as a civic duty: “I am proud to have been selected,” Madylin told the newscast Garcia, in his fifties, confident to be “moved”.
Four candidate vaccines are in preparation. Their names were not chosen at random: Soberana (sovereign) 1 and 2, Abdala (named after a poem by the national hero José Marti) and Mambisa (named after Cuban women who fought for independence in the 19th century).
The first three are given by injection, the fourth by nasal spray.
– “30 years of experience” –
Cuba “was the first candidate in Latin America and the Caribbean to have a vaccine in the clinical phase,” said José Moya, local representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), who said he was “optimistic”.
The reason for his optimism? “Cuba has more than 30 years of experience in the production of its own vaccines and nearly 80% of the vaccines in the national immunization program are produced in the country.”
Under an American embargo since 1962, Cuba has often had to find its own remedies.
From the 1980s, he bet on biotechnology, discovering in particular the first vaccine against meningococcal B, says Nils Graber, researcher in anthropology of health at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland).
“The aim was both to improve the national health system and to be the subject of export goods,” he adds, citing the sending of Cuban treatments to Latin America, the Asia and Africa.
The export of medical services – drugs, vaccines and doctors – is now Cuba’s main source of income, with $ 6.3 billion in 2018. In 2020, the island sent medical brigades to 40 countries to fight against the coronavirus.
“It would have been perceived in a very surprising and regrettable way by the population that Cuba must import a Russian or Chinese vaccine”, observes the researcher. Sending his doctors abroad and making his own vaccine, “these are also political coups which strengthen the prestige of the country.”
– Geopolitics –
Behind Cuban medical prowess, geopolitics is never far away: on January 8, the Finlay Institute and the Pasteur Institute of Iran signed an agreement to test the effectiveness of Soberana 2 in Iran during phase III.
“The vaccine of Cuba will be the vaccine of Alba”, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (whose members include Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua), also assured AFP the Venezuelan vice-president Delcy Rodriguez during a recent visit to Havana.
Venezuela offers its “production capacities” to supply the countries of the Alliance, although “of course Cuba can offer its vaccine to the world,” she added.
According to José Moya, the Cuban vaccine “has been preselected by PAHO (Pan American branch of the WHO, editor’s note), which would allow it to be included in the vaccine revolving fund, PAHO’s procurement mechanism for the countries of the Americas so that they can have access to vaccines at a reasonable price”.
“The laboratories have already reserved almost all of their production for the year and it is especially the richest countries that have bought it, so these (Cuban) vaccines will be necessary.”
This week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world risked “catastrophic moral failure” if rich countries monopolized vaccines at the expense of poor countries.