Havana — People wait in line for four hours to buy detergent in Havana. Cuban pharmacies do not use painkillers. There is a national shortage of bread.
Still, the Cuban government says it is on the brink of extraordinary scientific achievements: mass production of the coronavirus vaccine invented on the island.
One of the four vaccines developed by Cuban scientists will enter the final stages of testing next month. This is an important step towards regulatory approval, and if successful, the island can be inoculated into the entire population and exported abroad by the end of the year.
If the vaccine proves safe and effective, it will bring significant political victories to the Cuban government and give it a shot to save the country from economic ruin. Vaccines also offer unique public relations opportunities for countries that have been promoting their sophisticated health care system for decades as evidence of the interests of socialism.
The vaccine that goes to the final stages of the clinical trial is called Sovereign 2, and it favors the island’s autonomy despite decades of hostility north of its neighbors. Already, Cuba has come up with the idea of seducing tourists to the beach with a fascinating cocktail of sun, sand and sovereign 2 shots.
Vicente Beres, one of the scientists leading the team that developed the vaccine, said the island could provide vaccinations to all foreigners traveling there.
“It’s not just medicine and humanitarianism. If you can control the virus, there’s a big financial reward,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuban expert at the University of California, San Diego. “It will not only be an immediate income, but will also enhance the reputation of Cuba’s pharmaceutical biotechnology division and enable the sale of other medical products.”
In line with the long-standing practice of Cuban scientists donating drugs to combat foreign public health crises and strengthening international affairs by sending doctors, the government probably has some doses in poor countries. Says it will give.
“Cuba has always donated vaccines,” said Gerardo Guillén, a scientist who develops two of the four vaccines at the state-owned Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center. “We help other countries.”
Cuba began investing in biotechnology in the 1980s. This is part of Fidel Castro’s efforts to make the country self-sufficient in the face of a US embargo that has made it difficult to obtain medicines produced abroad.
Investing in public health has created dozens of medical research institutes and surplus doctors, and Cuba has sent them to other countries on medical missions, including the fight against Ebola in Africa and cholera in Haiti.In Brazil, they Medical care provided To remote or violent areas of the country.
However, this program has also been criticized. Cuban medical professionals earn only a small salary and are not allowed to take their families abroad.Mostly The money paid for their service goes to the island government.. In 2019, leasing doctors, nurses and technicians brought $ 5.4 billion, double the tourism industry, which is the main driver of the economy.
The island’s biotechnology sector is also well developed. Cuba manufactures eight of the twelve vaccines given to children on the island and exports them to more than 30 countries.
“It’s a biotechnology Jaguar note,” said Gail Reed, editor of MEDICC Review, a peer-reviewed journal in Cuba that is developing world medicine. “The result cannot be denied.”
Cuban scientists have also developed innovative treatments, Including lung cancer vaccine, New York-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Candice Johnson, President of Roswell Park, said: “Some people think that Cuba just makes these medicines in the garage and provides them to people.” They are at exactly the same high standards as all other countries make these medicines. I am practicing very much. “
Johnson said Cuban scientists have shown that she “adhered to all appropriate standards and controls” before she could bring a lung cancer drug to New York.
The production of coronavirus vaccines has been further complicated by the Trump administration’s increased sanctions on Cuba. Scientists say they couldn’t buy all the equipment and raw materials they needed, including the spectrometers used for quality control. According to Dr. Gillen, the two research groups working on the drug have only one research group that is strong enough to analyze vaccines, which is about 20 years old.
“Cubans can not only move old cars, but also old equipment,” said Mitchell Valdes Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center.
The sovereign 2 vaccine will go through a two-stage trial and enter the third stage. At this stage, about 150,000 people have been tested in Cuba and Iran, showing interest in purchasing the drug. Mexico is also in talks with Cubans to participate in the third phase of the trial.
Similar to the vaccine being developed by the US company Novavax, Sovereign 2 is a protein-based vaccine that contains some of the Covid-19 virus. It should be given 3 times at 2-week intervals and, unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, does not require quick freezing. This is attractive for poor countries that lack the equipment to keep large doses frozen.
Dr. Beres said in a text message that Sovereign 2 is “very safe and has few side effects.” This is a requirement to proceed to the third and final stages of the exam. Scientists will not publish their effectiveness until the trial is complete. It is still unclear whether the vaccine will protect against new mutants. Already detected On the island.
The government is optimistic and is proud that 100 million vaccinations are possible this year, sufficient to immunize 11 million people, and in some cases foreign visitors, across the country.
However, Cuba may not have the necessary equipment to produce vaccines on that scale. US sanctions have increased the cost of purchasing raw materials and complicated the transfer of funds to the island.
“It can be difficult to buy 100 million vials,” said Jose Luis Diffavio, a former World Health Organization representative in Cuba. “Or, if you have equipment that needs repair, you don’t have access to the parts that you might need, or instead of getting something in a week, you get it in a month.”
And opening the door to vaccine-hungry tourists may pose new problems.
Cuba relied on strict population control and efficient systems to provide health care to limit the spread of the virus early on. Those diagnosed with the virus were immediately hospitalized and drank a cocktail of Cuban and generic drugs.
The government quarantined their close contact and monitored them for symptoms. Cuba reported 12,225 confirmed coronavirus cases and 146 deaths in 2020, among the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Then, after a seven-month closure, the number of cases surged following the decision to open an international air travel in November. Authorities are currently fighting the worst outbreaks since the pandemic began, with more cases registered in January than all of last year, and recently set a curfew in Havana at 9 pm.
The government has not yet announced a specific plan for inoculating tourists, but the length of time it takes to provide all three shots that Sovereign 2 needs must be taken into account.
Instead of staying on the island for a month and a half, Dr. Gillen said tourists could inoculate the island once and pack the remaining two in their suitcases before returning home.
The plan to open vaccinations to tourists seems to be a dangerous and wise capitalist gambit to attract visitors, and with them is the hard currency that the island urgently needs. According to experts, the combination of pandemics and sanctions has created the worst economic crisis the country has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. There is a shortage of almost everything you can imagine, from chicken to soap.
But Cuban scientists argue that the goal is to promote good health. According to them, any benefit is just a side effect.
“We are not a multinational company where return on investment is a top priority,” Verez, who leads the development of vaccines, said at a recent press conference. “Our top priority is to create health, and the return on investment is the result.”
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