Havana – People stand in line for four hours to buy detergent in Havana. Cuban pharmacies have pain medication. There is a shortage of national bread.
And yet the Cuban government says it is on the verge of an extraordinary scientific achievement: mass production of the invented coronavirus virus on the island.
One of the four vaccines developed by Cuban scientists will enter the final phase of testing next month, an important step toward regulatory approval that, if successful, could put the island on track to vaccinate its entire population And could start exporting overseas by the end of the year.
If the vaccine proves to be safe and effective, it will give the Cuban government a significant political victory – and a shot at saving the country from economic ruin. For a country that for decades saw its sophisticated health care system as evidence of the benefits of socialism, the vaccine also offers a unique public relations opportunity.
The title of the vaccine for the final phase of the trial is called Sovereign 2, which is a matter of pride for its autonomy to the island despite decades of hostility from its neighbor to the north. Already, Cuba is floating the idea of wooing tourists with a sun, sandless tireless cocktail and a shot of Sovereign 2.
Vicente Vries, one of the scientists who led the vaccine-developing team, has said that the island could offer vaccination to all foreigners who travel there.
“It’s not just medicine and humanism; If they can keep the virus under control then there is a big economic payoff, ”said Cuban expert Richard Feinberg of the University of California at Diego. “This will not only be an immediate income, but will boost the reputation of Cuba’s pharmaceutical biotech sector, which will enable them to market other medical products.”
Cuban scientists say the government will probably give some supplements to poor countries, including the long-standing practice of sending doctors to strengthen international relations by donating the drug and to alleviate prolonged public health crises.
“Cuba always donated vaccines,” said Gerardo Guilin, a scientist who is developing two out of four vaccines at a state-owned center for genetic engineering and biotechnology. “We help other countries.”
Cuba began pouring money into biotech in the 1980s, part of Fidel Castro’s campaign to make the nation self-sufficient in front of the US embassy, making it difficult to obtain drugs produced abroad.
Investments in public health led to a surplus of dozens of medical research institutes and doctors, which Cuba sends to medical missions in other countries including fighting Ebola in Africa and cholera in Haiti. In Brazil, they have Distributed medical care For remote or violent parts of the country.
But the program has also been criticized: Cuban medical professionals earn meager salaries and are not allowed to bring their families abroad; Most of The money paid for his services goes to the island’s government. In 2019, $ 5.4 billion in tourism leased to doctors, nurses and technicians, twice as a major driver of the economy brought tourism.
The biotechnology sector of the island is also well developed. Cuba makes eight of the 12 vaccines administered to children on the island and exports the vaccines to more than 30 countries.
“This is a biotech epoch,” said Gail Reid, a Cuban peer-reviewed magazine about the island and editor of Developing World Medicine. “Achievements are indisputable.”
Cuban scientists have also developed innovative treatments, Including a lung cancer vaccine, Which is under trial with the New York-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Sometimes people think that because it’s Cuban, they’re making these drugs in their garages and giving them to people, and that’s not true,” said Candace Johnson, Roswell Park president. “They are practicing with very high standards that every other country produces these drugs.”
Ms Johnson said Cuban scientists demonstrated that they “followed all appropriate standards and controls” before they could bring the lung cancer drug to New York.
Production of the coronavirus vaccine was further complicated by the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Cuba. Scientists say they are not able to purchase all equipment and raw materials, including spectrometers used for quality control. Dr. Guillen said that of the two research groups working on the drug, only one is powerful enough to analyze the vaccine.
“Cubans not only enable older cars to still work, but can manage to make older devices,” said Michel Vallades Sousa, director of Cuba’s Neurosciences Center.
The Sovereign 2 vaccine has advanced through two-phase trials and is set to enter a third phase, where it will be tested on approximately 150,000 people in Cuba and Iran, which has shown interest in purchasing the drug. Mexico is also in talks with Cubans to participate in Phase III trials.
Like the vaccine being developed by the US company Novavax, Sovereign 2 is a protein-based vaccine that contains part of the Kovid-19 virus. It requires three doses administered in two-week intervals, and unlike modern and Pfizer vaccines, it does not need to be stored in deep freeze – which can be a draw for poor countries in which so often There is a lack of equipment to keep all the doses.
Dr. Verez said in a text message that Sovereign 2 is “very safe with very few adverse effects,” requiring testing in the third and final stages. Scientists will not publish its efficacy rate until the test is completed. It is still unclear whether the vaccine will protect against new variants, one of which is Already revealed On the island.
The government is optimistic and claims that it can produce 100 million doses this year, enough to vaccinate 11 million and possibly, foreign visitors from across the country.
But Cuba may not have the necessary equipment to manufacture its vaccines at that level. US sanctions have incurred the purchase of raw materials and complicated transfers of funds to the island.
“It may be difficult to buy enough vials for their 100 million doses,” said Jose Luis DiFabio, former Cuban World Health Organization representative. “Or if you have equipment that needs repair, you don’t have access to the parts you might need. Or instead of getting something in a week, you can get it in a month.”
And opening doors to vaccine-starved tourists can create new problems.
Cuba quickly limited the spread of the virus, leaning on its tight control of the population and an efficient system for delivering health care. Anyone diagnosed with the virus was immediately hospitalized and put into a cocktail of Cuban and generic drugs.
The government isolated his close contacts and monitored him for symptoms. Cuba confirmed just 12,225 confirmed coronovirus cases and 146 deaths in 2020, among the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Then, after the decision to open international air travel in November after a seven-month closure, the number of cases increased. Authorities are now battling the worst outbreak since the epidemic began, with more cases reported in January than last year and curfew recently in Havana at 9am.
The government has not yet announced any specific plans for tourist arrivals, but the time taken to deliver all three shots required by Sovereign 2 has to be kept in mind.
Dr. Guillen said that instead of staying on the island for a month and a half, tourists could be given the option to vaccinate the island once, and pack the other two dosages into their suitcases to return home.
The plan to open vaccinations to tourists appears, for some, to be a risky and cleverly capitalist gamble to attract visitors, and with them the dire currency island is in dire need. Experts say that the combination of epidemics and sanctions has caused the country the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just about every good fantasy – from chicken to soap – has become rare.
However, Cuban scientists insist that health is to be disseminated. Any benefit, they say, is only a side effect.
“We are not a multinational where return on investment is our No. 1 priority,” Mr. Verez, who is the head of vaccine development, said at a recent news conference. “Health is our first priority, and the return on investment is the result of that.”