Why the extraordinary success of a Covid vaccine in Cuba could offer the best hope for low-income countries

Workers transport a shipment of Cuban’s Cupirana Plus vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, to be donated by the Cuban government to Syria, at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, on January 7, 2022.

Yamil Lage | AFP | Getty Images

Cuba has vaccinated a larger proportion of its population against Covid-19 than nearly all of the world’s largest and richest countries. In fact, only the oil-rich UAE has a stronger vaccination record.

The small, Communist-run Caribbean island has achieved the feat by producing its own Covid vaccine, even as it struggles to keep supermarket shelves full amid a decades-old US trade embargo.

“It’s amazing work,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuban expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC by phone.

“Those of us who have studied biotechnology are not surprised by this meaning, because it did not appear suddenly. It is the product of a conscious government policy of state investment in the sector, in both public health and medical science.”

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

These figures include children from the age of two who started receiving the vaccination several months ago. The country’s health authorities are rolling out booster doses to the entire population this month in a bid to curb the spread of the highly transmissible omicron Covid variant.

The country of 11 million people remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has produced a domestic snapshot of Covid.

John Kirk, professor emeritus in the Latin American program at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, told CNBC by phone.

I think it’s clear that many countries and people in the global south see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope of getting vaccinated by 2025.

Helen Yaffe

Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow,

Cuba’s prestigious biotech sector has developed five different vaccines for Covid, including Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus – all of which Cuba says offer more than 90% protection against Covid symptoms when given three doses.

Data from clinical trials of a vaccine in Cuba has not yet been subject to an international scientific peer review, although the country has participated in two virtual exchanges of information with the World Health Organization. To begin the process of listing the emergency uses of its vaccines.

Unlike US pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, which use mRNA technology, all Cuban vaccines are subprotein vaccines — such as the Novavax vaccine. It is essential for low-income countries, it is cheap to produce, can be manufactured on a large scale and does not require deep freezing.

It has prompted international health officials to promote the shots as a potential source of hope for the “Global South,” especially as vaccination rates remain low. For example, while about 70% of people in the European Union have been fully vaccinated, less than 10% of the African population has been fully vaccinated.

In order for this to be achieved, the Cuban vaccines will likely be approved by the World Health Organization. The WHO’s screening process includes an assessment of production facilities where vaccines are being developed, a point Cuban health officials say has slowed progress.

Vicente Ferez, head of Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute, told Reuters last month that the United Nations health agency rates Cuba’s manufacturing facilities to a “first world standard,” noting the costly process of bringing its facilities to that level.

Ferrez previously said that the necessary documents and data will be submitted to the World Health Organization in the first quarter of 2022. WHO’s approval would be an important step to make the footage available worldwide.

‘Colossal importance’

When asked what it would mean for low-income countries if the World Health Organization approved the Cuban 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 of getting 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 the broad population is almost without coverage is you have new mutations and variants that evolve and then come back to haunt the advanced capitalist countries that have been hoarding the vaccines.”

A man wears a face mask as he walks down a street amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Havana, Cuba, October 2, 2021.

Joaquin Hernandez | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Kirk agreed that potential WHO approval of locally produced Covid vaccines in Cuba would hold “enormous importance” for developing countries.

“The only important thing to keep in mind is that the vaccines don’t require the very low temperatures that Pfizer and Moderna need, so there are places, in Africa in particular, where you can’t stockpile these universal and Nordic vaccines,” Kirk said.

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

“Cuba’s goal is not to make a quick profit, unlike multinational pharmaceutical companies, but rather to keep the planet healthy. So, yes, an honest profit but not an exorbitant profit as some multinationals might make,” Kirk said. .

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that the “tsunami” of Covid cases due to the omicron variable was “so huge and so fast” that it overwhelmed health systems around the world.

Tedros reiterated his call for greater distribution of vaccines to help low-income countries vaccinate their populations, with more than 100 countries on track to miss the UN health agency’s target of immunizing 70% of the entire world’s population by July.

The World Health Organization said last year that the world would likely have enough doses of the Covid vaccine in 2022 to vaccinate the entire adult population of the world — provided that high-income countries did not stockpile the vaccines for use in booster programmes.

Besides the pharmaceutical industry trade associations, a number of Western countries – such as Canada, the UK and Japan – are among those actively blocking a patent waiver proposal designed to boost global production of Covid vaccines.

The urgent need to waive some intellectual property rights amid the pandemic has been repeatedly emphasized by the World Health Organization, health experts, civil society groups, unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel laureates and human rights organizations.

Vaccine no hesitation

The seven-day average daily Covid-19 cases in Cuba rose to 2,063 as of January 11, reflecting a nearly 10-fold increase since the end of December with the spread of the omicron variant.

This comes as the number of Omicron COVID cases rises across countries and territories in the Americas region. The Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Americas, has warned that a rise in cases could lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.

The Pan American Health Organization called on countries to speed up vaccination coverage to reduce transmission of the Covid virus, and reiterated its recommendation on public health measures such as tight-fitting masks – a mandatory requirement in Cuba.

Yaffe was always confident that Cuba could boast one of the strongest vaccination records in the world. Speaking to CNBC in February last year – before the country developed a home-grown vaccine – she said she could “guarantee” That Cuba will be able to administer the locally produced Covid vaccine very quickly.

“It wasn’t a guess,” Yaffe said. “It was based on an understanding of their public health care system and its structure. So, the fact that they have what they call family doctor and nurse clinics in every neighborhood.”

Students accompanied by their mother are vaccinated with a dose of the Soberana 2 vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, which was developed in Cuba, at the Bolivar Education Center in Caracas, Venezuela on December 13, 2021.

Pedro Rances Matte | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many of these clinics are located in rural and hard-to-reach areas, meaning that health authorities can quickly deliver vaccinations to islanders.

“The other side is that they have no hesitation about vaccines, which is something we’re seeing in many countries,” Yaffe said.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo