A vaccine for those who visit Cuba

A scientist works on the development of Abdala, one of the vaccines developed by the Cuban Government Ramón Espinosa / AP

If, as expected, the Joe Biden Administration announces this March the lifting of some of the restrictions on travel between the US and Cuba, US citizens could be in for a very pleasant surprise: anticovid vaccines designed and made on the island to be administered to all visitors.

The biotechnology sector in Havana – made up of a group of laboratories all managed by the Government – is developing four vaccines and the one that is in the most advanced phase, known as Sovereign 02, is about to enter the third phase of tests .

With 42,000 volunteers in Cuba and some 100,000 in Iran, the vaccine is expected to achieve the green light from the Cuban pharmaceutical regulator – the Central for State Control of Medicines, Equipment and Devices (Cecmed) – in mid-March.

The executives of BioCubaFarma, the state business group responsible for research and development of vaccines, estimate that – as long as the tests go well – Cuba can manufacture 100 million doses this year, enough to protect the 11 million Cuban citizens and export what remains to countries like Iran, India, Pakistan, Venezuela, Bolivia and Vietnam.

“It is very likely that they will obtain good results in the tests because this vaccine is made from an existing platform,” explains Helen Yaffe, an economist specializing in Cuba at the University of Glasgow and author of the book We are Cuba (Yale University, 2020 ).

Like Chinese vaccines, Sovereign 02 does not have to be stored in very cold temperatures, so it is more useful in developing countries than the new generation of vaccines such as Pfizer’s. Cuba has extensive experience in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines since a dengue epidemic affected the island in the eighties and convinced the Cuban State of the need to prioritize biotechnology. Today, eight of the eleven vaccines administered to Cuban children are manufactured on the island.

The economist Yaffe, who visited Havana in January and has spoken with the managers of the so-called scientific centers where the biotechnology laboratories are located, confirms in an interview with this newspaper that “they are going to offer vaccines to all tourists and visitors to the Island”. Of course, the probable schedule of vaccination with Sovereign 02 – three doses administered over four weeks – would limit its usefulness for short-stay visits.

The manufacture of the new vaccine adds to the effective management of the pandemic in Cuba. Thanks to the use of state quarantines and a public health system with a presence in all neighborhoods, only 47,000 people have been infected on the island.

The manufacture of the vaccine adds to the good management of the pandemic: only 308 people have died

What’s more, thanks to the efficacy of the cocktail of drugs used in the treatment of the disease – most of it, manufactured domestically – only 308 people have died. They are the best results in Latin America. To compare, on the neighboring Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic, with an almost equal population, 3,000 of the 240,000 infected have died.

Experts consulted in Washington hope that the new Democratic Administration will lift restrictions on travel to Cuba as the policy of openness adopted by the Barack Obama administration of which Biden was vice president recovers. Some 600,000 Americans visited Cuba between 2016 and 2018, ten times more than before Obama’s inauguration.

“I think there will be a significant recovery in travel from the US to Cuba and there will be an element of vaccine tourism especially for young people, who are the last in line for vaccines here,” says Peter Kornbluh, author of Back channel to Cuba , who has worked as a guide on educational and cultural trips to Cuba.

At a time of shortages in regions such as Europe, the Cuban vaccine is “a victory on several fronts, public health, economy and humanitarian diplomacy,” says Kornbluh.

It is even more striking when one takes into account the serious crisis that the Cuban economy is going through after the collapse of its main source of foreign exchange, tourism, caused by the pandemic and aggravated by the sanctions implemented by the Trump administration. These included the decision – days before the November elections – to add Cuba to the list of states classified by the US as sponsors of terrorism.

There is a “hellish dichotomy,” explains economist Yaffe. Cuba has managed to design and manufacture its own vaccine, but, on occasions, in recent months “there has been a shortage of syringes,” he said. They have enough for vaccination, but, due to the embargo, it costs them much more ”.

Biden has hinted that he intends to return to the policy of diplomatic rapprochement of the Obama years, but, more than a month after his inauguration, he has not yet announced any opening measures.

“I am counting on many of the Trump-era restrictions on travel and remittances to be lifted, and perhaps recovering agreements in areas such as healthcare, judicial cooperation and property rights issues,” predicts Geoff Thale, of the influential NGO Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Ricardo Herrero, director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, expects the lifting of restrictions on travel and remittances to take place “in the coming weeks.”

Experts point out that the lifting of Biden’s restrictions could come “in the coming weeks.”

The partial reopening of the US embassy in Havana is also expected. This will help Cuban citizens to apply for visas to visit the US without having to go to a third country.

Biden will probably once again block – like all presidents before Trump – the application of titles three and four of the Helms Burton Act, which allow suing foreign investors who use assets expropriated after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

But Trump’s victory in Florida – where he successfully mobilized the Cuban-American conservative vote – may weigh on the Cuban policy of the new Democratic president. “It is highly unlikely that Biden will remove Trump’s executive orders in one fell swoop; he will not want to lose a penny of political capital, ”says Ricardo Herrero.

Nor is it likely that Democrats will try to use their majority in both houses to lift the embargo on Cuba. “Bob Menendez would be the first to block it,” Herrero said in reference to the veteran Cuban-American Democrat who is already chairman of the Senate International Relations Committee.

Source: La Vanguardia