Cuba could be closing in on COVID vaccine sovereignty

The island is developing five experimental shots but two have reached final-stage trials.

A volunteer receives a dose of the Soberana-02 COVID-19 vaccine in Havana [Jorge Luis Banos/Reuters]

With two domestically produced COVID-19 vaccines in stage-three clinical trials, Cuba is racing towards potentially becoming the first country in Latin America to develop its own shot against the coronavirus.

The island of 11 million people, which has been under a strict US trade embargo for decades, is in process of developing five experimental shots, including Soberana 02 and Abdala, which reached final-stage trials last month.

The names of the vaccines reveal much about how Cuba sees the national effort. Soberana translates as “sovereign”, while the Abdala shot was named after a patriotic poem by the Cuban revolutionary hero Jose Marti.

Around 44,000 people will receive the Soberana 02 vaccine, and some 48,000 volunteers have been recruited for the Abdala trial. According to local reports, an additional 150,000 frontline workers will also receive the Soberana 02 shot.

The Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which is developing Abdala, is hoping to have “effective results” from the trial by early June, while results from the trial of Soberana 02, which is being developed by the Finlay Institute, are expected in May.

“There are already positive preliminary results,” Ricardo Perez, head of International Relations at the Finlay Vaccine Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“These might allow us to present a dossier to the Cuban authorities that would enable us to request approval for emergency use of the product, not anymore as a candidate but as a product … probably by the end of next month,” he said.

Health workers are tested after receiving a dose of the Soberana-02 COVID-19 vaccine, as part of stage-three trials of the experimental Cuban vaccine candidate [File: Ramon Espinosa /Reuters]

Dr Gerardo Guillen, Director of Biomedical Research at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, told Al Jazeera that there were high levels of trust among the public in the candidate vaccines.

“Since health is universal and free and the centres do not profit from access to these vaccines, these conditions remove many ethical barriers and create a lot of trust in the centres for research and vaccine production,” he said.

Cuba is hoping to vaccinate all its inhabitants before the end of the year. The Finlay Institute says it can produce 100 million doses of the Soberana 02 vaccine this year. The aim is to satisfy the country’s demand and to be able to export the remaining shots.

It is an ambitious goal, but the country’s pharmaceutical and biotech industries have a decades-long history and have produced several vaccines including shots against Hepatitis B and Meningitis B.

“Cuba has been developing vaccines since the 80s, so despite having a poor and dysfunctional economy, the government managed to develop an important technological platform for a small country,” Cuba economist Ricardo Torres told Al Jazeera.

Dr Jose Moya, a representative of the Pan American Health Organization in Cuba, said the island already develops 80 percent of the vaccines that are part of its national immunisation programme.

“Cuba has the capacity to do this,” Dr Moya told Al Jazeera. “This is also important for the region since this could [also] open the opportunity to transfer technology within our countries,” Dr Moya said.

A health worker asks questions in a quarantine area amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in Havana, Cuba [File: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

The race to develop vaccines comes as the island struggles with a recent surge of infections. The seven-day average for new infections was more than 1,100 on April 28, according to Our World in Data. Cuba’s death toll since the pandemic started has reached 614.

For much of last year, the country saw extremely low rates of new infections. The spike followed after the government opened borders to international travel in November. However, the number of infections and deaths remains much lower in Cuba than in other parts of the world, where new variants have overwhelmed health systems in several countries.

The government did not purchase vaccines from other countries and Cuba did not sign up to the COVAX scheme, a vaccine-sharing initiative backed by the World Health Organization, and developed by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi. The government has not commented on the decision to rely on domestic vaccine production.

Dr Guillen noted that some countries have experienced problems with vaccine supply chains, and said the US embargo on Cuba made it harder to access some materials.

“Some countries that have already signed contracts have not been able to access the doses they have [bought], due to the lack of availability in vaccines,” Dr Guillen said.

“In Cuba, the access is more difficult due to the embargo. Therefore we have to rely on our own capabilities and strengths, and that is what we’ve been doing,” he added.

Cuba is currently struggling with a rise in cases with an average of more than1,100 daily cases [File:Ramon Espinosa/Reuters]

The US embargo against Cuba is one of the longest trade embargoes in modern history. Starting in the late 1950s, the embargo prohibits most US companies and individuals from doing business in Cuba.

Under the embargo, businesses are not allowed to sell to Cuba any medical product that contains more than 20 percent of American components, and the regulations require an individual license for equipment that has more than 10 percent.

During the presidency of Donald Trump, 90 new economic restrictions were imposed in Cuba. These targeted financial transactions, tourism, energy, and foreign investments.

The blockade has made it difficult to acquire the raw materials needed to produce the vaccines and to make payments to Cuba’s international suppliers, Dr Guillen said.

“This is a very strict blockade,” he said. “We try to acquire products that don’t have the American technology, but sometimes that is very difficult, so then we have to do it through third countries, and many times those countries are also blocked … the technology for Cuba is blocked,” he added.

However, as the vaccine trials have progressed, the government has talked about sending doses to countries including Venezuela and Iran, where Soberana 02 is also undergoing late-stage trials.

Earlier this month Venezuela announced the signing of an agreement with Cuba that would allow them to produce the Abdala vaccine.

“The priority until now has been to develop a vaccine for [Cuba’s] population,” Dr Guillen said.

“Cuba has always been open to South-South cooperation, however, our capacity of production is not unlimited, so we will have to discuss with our counterparts, [and find] different ways to address this,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera