Building on its long experience and medical excellence, Cuba gave its researchers the mission to come up with the first coronavirus vaccine designed and produced in Latin America. Something to interest other countries.
“We have the capacity to manufacture 100 million doses“of Soberana 2, the most advanced vaccine candidate, in 2021, this week assured doctor Vicente Vérez, director of the Finlay vaccination institute. “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 – a population equivalent to that of Belgium, where there are 20,000 deaths.
Last Monday, Soberana 2 moved to phase IIb, which involves 900 volunteers. If successful, it would enter phase III (the last one before approval), with 150,000 volunteers, in March. In this country where a quarter of the budget is spent on health and where doctors are seen as heroes, participating in trials is seen as a civic duty.
A free but not compulsory vaccine
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.
Four vaccine candidates 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.
Cuba has been making vaccines for 30 years
Cuba “was the first candidate from Latin America and the Caribbean to have a vaccine in clinical phase “, emphasizes José Moya, local representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), who says “optimistic“.
The reason for his optimism? “Cuba has more than 30 years of experience in producing its own vaccines, and nearly 80% of the national immunization program vaccines are produced domestically.” Under an American embargo since 1962, Cuba has often had to find its own remedies.
Since the 1980s, the island has bet on biotechnology, discovering in particular the first vaccine against meningococcus B, says Nils Graber, researcher in health anthropology at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). “The objective 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, 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 doctors abroad and manufacturing a vaccine are “also political coups which reinforce the prestige of the country”.
According to José Moya, the Cuban vaccine “was shortlisted by PAHO” (Pan-American branch of the WHO, Editor’s note).