A man stands next to a Cuban national flag at the Melia Varadero International Hotel in Matanzas province on October 23, 2020. Varadero, Cuba’s premier beach resort, is reopening to international tourism amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Cuba’s most advanced Covid-19 vaccine candidate is expected to enter late-stage clinical trials next week, moving the small island state closer to an extraordinary medical feat that analysts say will have far-reaching implications across the South.
Cuba’s most promising vaccine candidate, of the four it is developing, is called Soberana 02. The vaccine’s name translates from Spanish as “Sovereign,” an ostensible nod to Cuba’s sense of national pride in its world-renowned health system.
Soberana 02 will enter Phase 3 trials starting March 1, and officials say as many as 150,000 volunteers will be tested within weeks. Phase 3 studies represent the final stage before a vaccine is widely approved by national regulatory authorities.
It comes at a time when many people in Cuba are being forced to wait in line for hours to buy basic goods and authorities continue to navigate a decades-old US trade embargo – with sanctions tightened even further in recent years by former President Donald Trump.
“It’s just this incredible dichotomy,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told The Washington City Times over the phone.
“On the one hand, you have this high-tech biotech sector that is bringing a lot of hope to the south of the world because it is the possibility of an affordable vaccine – (and) vaccinating the south of the world will be the priority,” said Yaffe.
“And at the same time, the Cubans get up at four or five in the morning to get in line, because there is a real shortage of real basic food and even medicines.”
What do we know about Soberana 02?
Cuba’s Finlay Institute, the country’s leading biopharmaceutical institution, oversees the development of Soberana 02. Dr. Vicente Verez, director of the institute, has hinted that the vaccine could be made available to tourists as an option later this year.
If Soberana 02 proves to be safe and effective, the development of a domestically produced vaccine would likely be hailed as an astonishing scientific breakthrough and a major political triumph. Cuba would also become the first Latin American country to immunize its population with a domestically produced vaccine.
Technician Mayelin Mejias will work at the Vaccine Aseptic and Packaging Processing Plant at the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana on January 20, 2021.
YAMIL LOW | AFP | Getty Images
The government has not yet drawn up any specific plans for the vaccination of tourists, but analysts say it is possible that foreigners traveling to Cuba could receive their first dose of vaccine on the island before receiving subsequent doses to take home.
Although public data is limited, it is believed that up to three doses of the vaccine can be administered every two weeks.
Yaffe, who is also the author of “We Are Cuba !: How a Revolutionary People Survived in a Post-Soviet World,” said Cuba’s sophisticated health care system would help the country roll out the vaccine “extremely quickly.”
“I can guarantee that. And if they have a vaccine that is every two weeks, people can be vaccinated within a month of starting,” Yaffe said.
“In the summer people will be pretty desperate to go on vacation and I think Cuba is nominating itself as an ideal destination. Sun, sea, sand and Soberana 02 are already being talked about. So I wouldn’t be surprised if people eventually go. to Cuba to look for the vaccine and I’m sure the Cubans will offer it. “
How does it work?
The Soberana 02 vaccine is a conjugated vaccine. This is a type of vaccine that carries a portion of the spike protein that binds to or conjugates with human cells to enhance stability and effectiveness.
Unlike other coronavirus vaccine candidates, such as Pfizer-BioNTech, among others, Soberana 02 requires no additional cooling requirements. This is likely to simplify the logistical and administrative challenges associated with vaccination programs in low-income countries.
People are lining up to buy food in Havana, on Feb. 2, 2021, as Covid-19 cases are on the rise in the island nation.
YAMIL LOW | AFP | Getty Images
In a virtual session led by the Pan American Health Organization on Feb. 5, Dr. Verez said Soberana 02 had produced “encouraging results” during the early stages of testing. He added that the vaccination has not yet caused any significant side effects.
The Cuban government has said it will produce 100 million doses of Soberana 02 this year to meet the demands of its own citizens and those in other countries. It aims to be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its entire population in 2021, despite the fact that many advanced countries started administering jabs almost two months ago.
Several countries have expressed an interest in obtaining the vaccine, such as Vietnam, Iran, Venezuela and the African Union, which represents all 55 countries in Africa.
Cuba, which has recorded relatively few cases of Covid compared to other countries in the region, has seen a surge in infections and fatalities in recent weeks. To date, Cuba has recorded 45,361 cases of the coronavirus and 300 deaths, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
‘One of the world’s best kept secrets’
Cuba has long been known for its medical diplomacy, with thousands of specialist staff sent abroad to assist countries in dealing with short-term crises, natural disasters and medical emergencies.
Human rights groups have expressed concern that the Cuban government is imposing repressive rules on doctors working abroad, citing the right to privacy, freedom and freedom of expression and association.
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Cuba had an estimated 24,500 medical personnel in 58 countries. Another 4,000 members of the Cuban Henry Reeve Brigade, a group of highly respected health workers, have gone to work in countries from Kuwait to Mexico, from Italy to South Africa.
Cuban doctors at a welcome ceremony for Cuban health workers sent to the Western Cape on May 24, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa, to support efforts in the fight against COVID-19.
Misha Jordaan | Gallo Images via Getty Images
It’s a deep-rooted tradition that means that the country of just over 11 million people is expected to have more medical personnel abroad than all G-7 countries put together.
“This is an extraordinary record, largely unknown to the mainstream media – one of the world’s best-kept secrets,” John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Latin American program in Nova Scotia, Canada, told us via email. to The Washington City Times.
“Medical internationalism is in Cuban’s DNA, and in fact the preamble to the Cuban constitution mentions Cuba’s commitment to sharing its medical talent with developing countries,” he added.