Why Cuba’s extraordinary Covid vaccine success might present the perfect hope for low-income nations

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Workers transport a shipment of Cuba’s Soberana Plus vaccine against Covid-19 to be donated to Syria by the Cuban government at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana January 7, 2022.

YAMIL LOCATION | AFP | Getty Images

Cuba has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population against Covid-19 than almost all of the world’s largest and wealthiest nations. In fact, only the oil-rich United Arab Emirates have a stronger vaccination record.

The tiny communist-run Caribbean island has achieved this milestone by making its own Covid vaccine despite struggling to keep supermarket shelves stocked amid a decades-old US trade embargo.

“It’s an incredible achievement,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC over the phone.

“Those of us who studied biotechnology aren’t surprised in that sense, because it didn’t just come out of the blue. It is the product of a deliberate government policy of government investment in the sector, both in public health and in medical science.”

To date, around 86% of the Cuban population has been fully vaccinated against Covid with three doses, and another 7% have been partially vaccinated against the disease, according to official statistics from Our World in Data.

These numbers include children as young as two years old who started vaccination a few months ago. The country’s health authorities are rolling out booster shots for the entire population this month to limit the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron-Covid variant.

I think it’s clear that many countries and communities in the Global South see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope for vaccination by 2025.

Helen Yaffe

Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow

The country of around 11 million people remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have produced its own shot for Covid.

“The sheer audacity of this tiny little country to make its own vaccines and vaccinate 90% of its population is an extraordinary thing,” John Kirk, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University’s Latin America program in Nova Scotia, Canada, told CNBC via Phone.

Cuba’s renowned biotech sector has developed five different Covid vaccines, including Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus – all of which Cuba says offer over 90% protection against symptomatic Covid when three doses are administered.

Cuba’s vaccine clinical trial data has yet to undergo international scientific peer review, although the country has held two virtual information exchanges with the World Health Organization to initiate the emergency room procedure for its vaccines.

Unlike US pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, which use mRNA technology, all of Cuba’s vaccines are protein subunit vaccines – like the Novavax vaccine. Crucially for low-income countries, they are cheap to produce, can be manufactured on a large scale, and do not require deep-freezing.

It has prompted international health officials to tout vaccination as a potential source of hope for the “Global South,” especially given persistently low immunization rates. While around 70% of people in the European Union are fully vaccinated, less than 10% of the African population are fully vaccinated.

A street in Havana, Cuba amid the Covid-19 pandemic on October 2, 2021.

Joaquin Hernandez | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

However, for this to become a reality, the WHO would likely need to approve Cuba’s vaccines. The WHO’s review process includes assessing the manufacturing plants where the vaccines are being developed, an item that Cuba’s health officials say has slowed progress.

Vicente Verez, head of Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute, told Reuters last month that the UN health agency rates Cuba’s manufacturing facilities to a “first-world standard,” citing the costly process of bringing theirs to that level.

Verez has previously said the required documents and data will be presented to the WHO in the first quarter of 2022. WHO approval would be an important step towards making the recordings available worldwide.

“Huge Importance”

Asked what it would mean for low-income countries if the WHO approved Cuba’s Covid vaccines, Yaffe said: “I think it’s clear that many countries and communities in the Global South see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope, to be vaccinated by 2025.”

“And actually it affects us all because what we’re seeing with the Omicron variant is that mutations and new variants develop when large populations have almost no coverage and then they come back to haunt the advanced capitalist countries that have vaccines.” hoarded,” she added.

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

Pedro Rance’s Mattey | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Kirk agreed that the WHO’s eventual approval of Cuban-made Covid vaccines would have “huge significance” for developing countries.

“One important thing is that the vaccines don’t require the extremely low temperatures that Pfizer and Moderna require, so there are places, particularly in Africa, where you can’t globally stock these North vaccines,” Kirk said.

He also pointed out that unlike other countries or pharmaceutical companies, Cuba has offered to participate in technology transfer to share its know-how in vaccine production with low-income countries.

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

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that a “tsunami” of Covid cases triggered by the Omicron variant was “so big and so fast” that it had overwhelmed health systems worldwide.

Tedros reiterated his call for greater vaccine distribution to help low-income countries vaccinate their populations, with more than 100 countries on track to miss the UN health agency’s target of having 70% of the world fully vaccinated by July should be vaccinated.

The WHO said last year that by 2022 the world would likely have enough Covid vaccine doses to fully vaccinate the world’s entire adult population – assuming high-income countries had not stockpiled vaccines for use in booster programmes.

Alongside pharmaceutical industry trade associations, a number of Western countries – such as Canada and the UK – are among those actively blocking a patent waiver proposal aimed at boosting global production of Covid vaccines.

The urgency of relinquishing certain intellectual property rights amid the pandemic has been repeatedly underscored by the WHO, health experts, civil society groups, trade unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel Prize winners and human rights organizations.

Lack of vaccination hesitation

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

This is due to the sharp increase in the number of Omicron Covid cases in countries and areas in the Americas region. The Pan American Health Organization, WHO’s regional office for the Americas, has warned that a surge in cases could lead to a rise in hospital admissions and deaths in the coming weeks.

PAHO has urged countries to accelerate immunization coverage to reduce transmission of Covid and has reiterated its recommendation for public health measures such as: B. Tight-fitting masks – a mandatory requirement in Cuba.

Yaffe has long been confident that Cuba has one of the strongest immunization records in the world. Speaking to CNBC in February last year – before the country had even developed a domestic vaccine – she said she could “guarantee” it. that Cuba would be able to deliver its domestically produced Covid vaccine extremely quickly.

“It wasn’t a guess,” Yaffe said. “It was based on understanding their public health system and how it is structured. So the fact that they have what they call family doctor and nursing clinics in every neighborhood.”

Many of these clinics are located in rural and hard-to-reach areas, meaning health officials can get vaccines to islanders quickly.

“The other aspect is that they don’t have a vaccine hesitation movement, which we see in many countries,” Yaffe said.