Vaccine revolution: How Cuba developed five COVID-19 vaccines in a short time

Vaccine revolution: How Cuba developed five Covid-19 vaccines in a short time
Anantha Krishnan is a United Nations consultant and Secretary General of UN Urban Economy Forum.

Soberana 02, Abdala, Soberana 01, Soberana Plus and Mambisa. What do these names mean to you?

These are the names of the five COVID-19 vaccines developed by the Caribbean Island nation, Cuba, known for Che Guvara and revolution, Cohiba cigars and rum.

It is the only country in the Latin America and the Caribbean region to develop and produce vaccines against COVID-19. The first two vaccines, Soberana 02 and Abdala are now awaiting to be administered to the population after successful trials. At this point Cuba is still in the trial phase, albeit late stage. So far tests have been successful and health authorities are gearing up for interventional studies and late stage trials. “Ileana Morales, the health ministry’s director of science and technological innovation, said on a roundtable broadcast on state television that authorities would conduct an intervention study in 1.7 million people in Havana by May.”

Soberana is the Spanish word for Sovereign. Abdala is the title of a poem by national hero José Martí. Mambisa is a word of African origin, also named after the guerrillas who fought against the Spanish colonists in the 19th century.

Cuban Soberana 2 vaccine
Nurse Xiomara Rodriguez prepares a Cuban Soberana 2 vaccine candidate to be administered to a volunteer during its trial Phase III in Havana, on March 31, 2021. Photo by Joaquin Hernandez / AFP

The vaccine development and production is a matter of national pride for Cuba. Cuba has demonstrated the strength of its health system nationally and globally over the years. Despite the six-decade old US embargo which restricts importation of essential medical equipment needed to care for the sick in Cuba but also the supplies of the medical brigades working overseas, often in countries without adequate resources.

Universal healthcare and free education were main pillars of the post-1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. According to Time Magazine, life expectancy on the island is higher than in the U.S. and Cubans have almost more than three times as many doctors per capita.

International cooperation

Cuban Abdala vaccine
View of vials of the Cuban Abdala vaccine candidate during a press conference of the Biotechnological and Pharmaceutical Industries of Cuba (BioCubaFarma) in Havana, on March 19, 2021. Photo by Katell Abiven/AFP

Many countries in the developing World, over 70 countries have benefited from Cuban internationalism and solidarity expressed through Cuban doctors who have been sent as medical brigades.

Building on this experience, Cuban doctors and health specialists also have become one of the most active forces in the combating the pandemic, also globally. For example, sending health personnel last year to Italy with the rapid deployment and effectiveness became a positive example of international health cooperation in the face of a pandemic.

Cuba, like the State of Kerala in India, both with governments run by Communist parties, won much praise for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the numbers of infections / deaths were the lowest last year. But the success was short-lived, due to many factors including the need for people to go to work and buy the daily necessities-. The numbers of infected and hospitalized are increasing day by day. Hence while there remain stringent protocols for covid deterrent behavior, the attention is now on the vaccines.

One may wonder how a poor country Cuba, facing six decades of US blockade has managed to develop five COVID-19 vaccines? That too in such a short time?

Photo taken in the 60's of Fidel Castro, then Cuban Prime Minister (R) during a meeting next to guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara in Havana. AFP

It has not participated in the WHO-led COVAX Vaccine sharing initiative. It has also not asked for handouts of COVID vaccines from multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Global vaccine exporter

The Cuban biotech industry exported vaccines to more than 40 countries, since the 1980s including injections against meningitis, hepatitis B and lung cancer. Cuba has collaborated with Norway, for example in the application of meningitis vaccine.

Cuban doctors went to Haiti during the cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 earthquake. They were in west Africa during the 2014-16 Ebola crisis. Cuban vaccine research and production is 100% government financed. Institutions within Cuba collaborate in this regard and share resources and knowledge. The aim is to fast track from research and innovation to trials and application. Health professionals have already been vaccinated. According to Xinhuanet, Cuba could deliver the first million doses of its Soberana 02 COVID-19 vaccine candidate by late April. The news agency also reports that Cuba expects to produce 100 million doses of its Soberana 02 this year. Local vaccines are developed by experts from Havana's Finlay Institute of Vaccines (IFV) and the city's Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).

Earlier this year, Cuba and Iran, another country reeling under the pandemic nightmare, agreed on transfer of the vaccine technology from Cuba to Iran for its most advanced coronavirus vaccine. Trails are being completed in Iran. Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute and Iran’s Pasteur Institute are collaborating on extensive testing of Soberana 2. Mexico has also expressed interest in partnering with Cuba in this regard. Many other developing countries also have expressed interest.

A digital screen on the street displays images of the coronavirus amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Havana, Cuba, April 10, 2021. Picture taken April 10, 2021. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

India even though is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, factors such as quick access to raw materials from the US or Europe and the need to roll out as many million doses as possible to its own population and to support other developing countries may not be met soon. Collaboration with Cuba can produce a win-win situation, provided both are interested to make a quick decision. Time is of the essence and millions of lives could be saved in counties and cultures where keeping distance from each other is not an option.

Cuba with a cash strapped economy, that has experienced a 11% negative growth last year due the pandemic, with hardly any tourism to talk of, the biggest obstacle in producing and rolling our vaccine to all its 11 million people and to others in the developing world is the scale and speed of rolling out the vaccines.

South-South collaboration can help accelerate this process, either through provision of resources, purchase orders, knowledge transfer. Cuba is now working with Germany and China on vaccines to combat the new variants, in the same way it could collaborate with India, one of the world’s largest producers of pharmaceuticals, to expand production once the vaccines have been approved.

India and Cuba being members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and a long-standing solidarity on a wide range of issues, a Cuban-Indian partnership in fast-tracking the production of vaccines will indeed pave the way for a better common good. The light of Covid-19 Vaccine can get through a crack in the impervious COVID wall, produced by such a collaboration.

(The writer is the United Nations consultant and Secretary General of UN Urban Economy Forum)

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