Why the extraordinary success of the covid vaccine in Cuba could be the best hope for low-income countries

KEY POINTS

  • Cuba’s prestigious biotech sector has to date developed five different covid vaccines, including Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus, all of which, according to Cuba, provide more than 90% protection against symptomatic covid when administered in three doses. dose.
  • The country of about 11 million remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have produced a local injection for Covid.
  • Potential WHO approval of domestically produced COVID vaccines in Cuba would be of “huge importance” for low-income nations, John Kirk, professor emeritus in the Latin America program at the University, told CNBC by phone. Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Workers transport a shipment of the Cuban Abdala vaccine against Covid-19, which will be donated by the Cuban government to Syria, at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, on January 7, 2022.
Photo: AFP

Cuba has vaccinated a higher percentage of its population against Covid-19 than almost all the largest and richest nations in the world. In fact, only the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has a stronger vaccination record.

The tiny communist-run Caribbean island has achieved this milestone by producing its own Covid vaccine, even as it struggles to keep supermarket shelves stocked amid a decades-long US trade embargo.

“It’s an incredible feat,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and professor of economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC by phone.

“Those of us who have studied biotechnology are not surprised in that sense, because it has not come out of nowhere. It is the product of a conscious government policy of state investment in the sector, both in public health and in medical sciences.”

To date, around 86% of the Cuban population has been fully vaccinated against Covid with three doses, and another 7% partially inoculated against the disease, according to official statistics compiled by Our World in Data.

These figures include children as young as two years old, who started receiving the vaccine several months ago. The country’s health authorities are rolling out booster shots to the entire population this month in a bid to limit the spread of the highly transmissible omicron Covid variant.

“I think it is clear that many countries and populations in the global south see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope to get vaccinated in 2025.”

Helen Yaffe
Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow

The country of about 11 million remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have produced a local injection for Covid.

“The sheer audacity of this small country to produce its own vaccines and vaccinate 90% of its population is something extraordinary,” John Kirk, professor emeritus in the Latin America program at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, told CNBC. via CNBC. telephone.

Cuba’s prestigious biotech sector has developed five different Covid vaccines, including Abdala, Soberana 02, and Soberana Plus, all of which, according to Cuba, provide more than 90% protection against symptomatic Covid when three doses are administered.

Data from Cuba’s vaccine clinical trials have not yet undergone international scientific peer review, although the country has engaged in two virtual exchanges of information with the World Health Organization to start the Use Listing process. for your shots.

Unlike US pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, which use mRNA technology, all of Cuba’s vaccines are subunit protein vaccines, like the Novavax vaccine. Crucially for low-income countries, they are cheap to produce, can be manufactured at scale, and do not require deep freezing.

It has prompted international health officials to tout injections as a potential source of hope for the “global south,” particularly as low vaccination rates persist. For example, while around 70% of people in the European Union have been fully vaccinated, less than 10% of the African population has been fully vaccinated.

A street in Havana, Cuba, amid the Covid-19 pandemic on October 2, 2021.
Photo: Joaquin Hernandez | Xinhua News Agency

However, for this to be true, the WHO would probably have to approve Cuba’s vaccines. The WHO vetting process involves evaluating the production facilities where the vaccines are developed, a point that Cuban health officials say has slowed progress.

Vicente Verez, head of Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute, told Reuters last month that the UN health agency was evaluating Cuba’s manufacturing facilities to a “first world standard,” citing the costly process of upgrading vaccines. yours at that level.

Verez previously said that the necessary documents and data would be submitted to the WHO in the first quarter of 2022. WHO approval would be an important step in making the vaccines available worldwide.

‘Huge meaning’

Asked what it would mean for low-income countries if the WHO approved Cuba’s Covid vaccines, Yaffe said, “I think it’s clear that many countries and populations in the global south see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope for survival.” get vaccinated by 2025.”

“And in fact, it affects all of us because what we’re seeing with the omicron variant is that what happens when large populations have almost no coverage, is that you have mutations and new variants developing and then they come back to haunt capitalist countries. that have been stockpiling vaccines,” he added.

Michel is a “champion”, at only four years old he entered the vaccination area very determined. Photo: Karina Rodríguez Martínez/ Cubadebate.

Kirk agreed that possible WHO approval of domestically produced Covid vaccines in Cuba would be of “huge importance” for developing countries.

“One thing that’s important to note is that vaccines don’t require the ultra-low temperatures that Pfizer and Moderna do, so there are places, in Africa in particular, where you don’t have the capacity to store these global vaccines.” northern vaccines,” Kirk said.

He also noted that Cuba, unlike other countries or pharmaceutical companies, has offered to participate in technology transfer to share its experience in vaccine production with low-income countries.

“Cuba’s goal is not to make a quick buck, unlike the multinational drug corporations, but to keep the planet healthy. So yes, make an honest profit but not an exorbitant profit like some of the multinationals would,” Kirk said. .

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that a “tsunami” of Covid cases fueled by the omicron variant was “so big and so fast” that it had overwhelmed health systems around the world.

Tedros reiterated his call for more vaccine distribution to help low-income countries vaccinate their populations, with more than 100 countries on track to miss the UN health agency’s goal that 70% of world is fully vaccinated by July.

The WHO said last year that the world is likely to have enough doses of Covid vaccines by 2022 to fully inoculate the entire global adult population, provided high-income countries don’t stockpile vaccines for use in booster programs.

Along with pharmaceutical industry trade associations, several Western countries, including Canada and the UK, are among those actively blocking a patent-exempt proposal designed to boost global production of Covid vaccines.

The urgency of relinquishing certain intellectual property rights amid the pandemic has been repeatedly underlined by the WHO, health experts, civil society groups, trade unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel laureates and rights organizations. humans.

An absence of vaccine hesitancy

The seven-day average of daily COVID cases in Cuba rose to 2,063 as of January 11, reflecting a nearly 10-fold increase since late December as the omicron variant spreads.

This comes as the number of omicron Covid cases increases in the countries and territories of the Americas region. The Pan American Health Organization, the WHO’s regional office for the Americas, has warned that an increase in cases may lead to a rise in hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.

PAHO has called on countries to speed up vaccination coverage to reduce Covid transmission and has reiterated its recommendation for public health measures, such as tight-fitting masks, a mandatory requirement in Cuba.

Yaffe has long relied on Cuba’s ability to boast one of the strongest vaccination records in the world. Speaking to CNBC in February last year, even before the country had developed a local vaccine, he said he could “guarantee” that Cuba would be able to administer its domestically produced Covid vaccine extremely quickly.

“It was not a guess,” Yaffe said. “It was based on understanding their public health care system and its structure. Hence the fact that they have what they call family doctor-nurse clinics in every neighborhood.”

Many of these clinics are located in rural and hard-to-reach areas, which means health authorities can quickly deliver vaccines to the island’s population.

“The other aspect is that they don’t have a vaccine hesitancy movement, which is something we’re seeing in many countries,” Yaffe said.

(Taken from the CNBC television / Translation Cubadebate)

Leave a Reply