Cuba has eschewed every COVID vaccine in existence, but now it’s moving forward with its very own

cuba covid vaccine development
Photo via Pedro Szekely/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The island nation of Cuba—one of the last bastions for communism in the world, yet characterized as having a “long history of developing and exporting vaccines”—is preparing late-stage trials of its own COVID vaccine concurring with a massive vaccination effort. 

According to NBC News, Cuba “will administer experimental COVID-19 shots to nearly the entire population of the capital Havana by May as health authorities carry out massive interventional studies and late-stage trials.” 

Earlier in March 2021, Cuba moved forward with trials of two of the five COVID-19 vaccines it’s been at work on, called Soberana 2 and Abdala. If one or both vaccines win approval, they’ll be the first from that region to do so. 

Ileana Morales, the health ministry’s director of science and technological innovation, confirmed the nation will conduct an intervention study involving 1.7 million people in Havana in April and May. Cuba already has a study underway involving 150,000 frontline workers throughout the capital, estimated to have just over 2 million residents. 

The goal, according to an NPR report, is not just to vaccinate Cubans but to bring a vaccine into more widespread circulation. As the article relays, “Cuba has a dream—to have so much COVID-19 vaccine that not only could everyone on the island get immunized but Cuba would give it away to friends and allies around the world. There would be so many doses, Cuban officials would even offer free inoculations to tourists on arrival at the airport in Havana.” 

The NPR article noted that Cuba’s been staunchly independent on the pandemic, remarking that the country “isn’t even attempting to buy COVID vaccines from multinational pharmaceutical companies, nor has it bothered to sign up for the WHO-led COVAX dose sharing initiative, providing free or reduced-cost vaccines to low resource countries.” 

As NBC News observed, “The country developed a large biotech sector partly in order to become self-sufficient in the face of a crippling U.S. trade embargo. Venezuela and Iran, which also face U.S. sanctions, say they will also trial the Cuban COVID-19 vaccines, which have attracted the interest of other countries like Mexico and Jamaica.” 

Throughout 2020, Cuba has had an unusually low number of COVID-19 cases, but it is feeling greater effects of the pandemic now. 

An article in The Lancet, titled, “Behind Cuba’s successful pandemic response,” noted that Cuba kept the pandemic at bay for most of 2020 but experienced a surge in 2021. The country has more than 55,000 coronavirus cases and 248 deaths.  

Eduardo Ojito, who heads up the Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology, says Cuba should have enough doses of Soberana 2 to immunize the whole country by the end of the summer, assuming it goes through late-stage trials and approval without hiccups. 

“We are preparing to produce between 1-2 million doses each month,” Ojito says, starting with a million doses coming on line in April. That’s especially remarkable given, as NPR pointed out, Cuba is “in the midst of a foreign currency crisis that’s limited imports of vital raw materials for vaccine production” and is “facing serious shortages of many consumer goods including food, cleaning products, and even medicines.” 

“So we are trying to develop sophisticated vaccines, but people don’t have painkillers,” Cuban economist Vidal Pavel told NPR. “That’s the paradox.” 

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Sources: NBC News, NPR, The Lancet

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