Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean developing COVID-19 vaccines. There has been an interest in these vaccines within the Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
In Jamaica, there have been calls for the government to explore the possibilities with Cuba and it was reported recently that Suriname wants to take a Cuban vaccine. There is long-standing cooperation between CARICOM and Cuba and there’s a CARICOM/Cuba trade agreement.
This is a truly commendable achievement for Cuba, a small state, which, among the many, has four (4) vaccines listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in various stages of development. It has vaccines among the 23 at the advanced phase 3 in the development process. The Cuban vaccine, Soberana 02, is one of two vaccines being developed by the Finlay Vaccines Institute. The others are being developed by the country’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Cuba has a population of 11.3 million and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020 was estimated at US$91.2 billion with its per capita income at US$6,530. With the impact of COVID-19 and the early restrictions to contain it, the economy contracted by 11 percent in 2020. Since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, like other countries in the Caribbean, Cuba has become increasingly dependent on tourist arrivals, principally from Canada and the European Union (EU), and like its Caribbean neighbors, Cuba is facing a new economic crisis.
Like other Caribbean countries also, Cuba managed COVID-19 infections in the country quite well in 2020 until it began to reopen its borders in November and cases began to increase. In August 2020, Cuba indicated its intention to develop a homegrown COVID-19 vaccine. The country currently has recorded 71,584 cases with 414 deaths. The approved local vaccine will first be used to inoculate the Cuban population of at least 6 million people.
Since the 1959 Revolution and the 1962 U.S. trade embargo, Cuba was forced to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. More so with the reduction of Russian support within the last 30 years. Cuba, however, does receive some support from Canada and the EU.
In this situation, it is recorded that Cuba prioritized the development of its main natural resource, its people, investing in education and its healthcare sector. The Cuban government emphasized research and development in the treatment of diseases affecting its people and on prevention and rehabilitation. Cuba has developed expertise in biotechnology and immunology with 8 of 13 vaccines administered to children developed and produced locally.
CARICOM countries have benefitted, over the years, from scholarships to students study in Cuba. Cuban doctors and nurses have regularly worked in the region including recently to assist with COVID, and many CARICOM nationals have utilized healthcare, particularly eye care, services in Cuba.
It was reported that by March 4, the WHO recognized national regulatory body, the Cuban Center for the State Control of Medicines, Equipment and Medical Devices (CECMED), gave approval for the Soberana phase 3 clinical trials to commence. The trial involves 44,000 people mainly based in Havana, the center of COVID infections, and 150,000 health care workers. In addition, 100,000 doses were sent to Iran as part of the trial. This vaccine can be stored at normal freezer temperatures and requires 2 doses.
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the hemispheric arm of WHO, has been monitoring this process and seems optimistic that Cuba will be the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to produce a national vaccine.
At the end of the clinical trials, the CECMED will then be in a position to determine whether this vaccine can be approved for general use in Cuba. They are hoping that this should occur by June with full-scale vaccinations commencing in August. For the vaccine to be used outside of Cuba, it would be preferable it is approved by the WHO for emergency use.
It now appears a second of the Cuban vaccines, Abdala, has just arrived at phase 3 clinical trials, and there’s also a nasal spray vaccine, Mambisa, in the queue.
At the World Trade Organization (WTO), where discussions have been ongoing on a proposal, originally from India and South Africa, for a waiver from patents and other intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), it is not surprising that Cuba, as a vaccine developer, is not a co-sponsor. It seems this could jeopardize its position as an innovator, producer and exporter. This waiver proposal is not as straightforward and beneficial for all developing countries as it may seem on the surface. As with many things, the devils are in the details.
I am rooting for Cuba, as a small State in the Caribbean, to produce at least one successful COVID vaccine approved by the WHO. Of course, I want to see it sold and administered in this region.
Imagine what we could accomplish as a region if we learned how to better collaborate.
*CMC’s Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics.