The Cuban option against Covid-19

Biotechnology in Cuba has developed drugs that have already been effective in fighting the coronavirus in China and other countries.

Cuban doctors with a patient at Crema field hospital, south of Milan, on May 15 (MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

“We have a joke in Cuba that if we discovered the remedy for the coronavirus, Donald Trump would let all Americans die before buying it.”

Ernesto said it, a young Afro-Cuban waiter from the La Cava restaurant next to the restored Gran Teatro, in the center of Havana. It was in early March. Covid-19 had just landed in the United States, and Donald Trump minimized the danger.

Meanwhile, Cuba was preparing its strategy for quarantine, tests and follow-up of contacts, while alerting the biotechnology institutes of the scientific pole in the west of the city.

Eduardo’s joke tells the story that many Americans could not even imagine it. Indeed, biotechnology in Cuba has developed drugs that have already been effective in fighting the coronavirus in China and other countries.

There is an important difference between the biotechnology model in the USA. and Cuba. Driven by the profits of the pharmaceutical giants, American biotech companies do not guarantee access to new drugs, let alone the more than 30 million Americans who lack health insurance. In Cuba, biotechnology belongs to the State and constitutes an auxiliary industry to a public and universal health system.

The example of the US company Gilead Sciences – owned by the two mega-investment funds Blackrock and Vanguard – helps illustrate the difference. Gilead – chaired between 1997 and 2001 by Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary during the invasion of Iraq – manufactures the antiviral Remdesivir, which has caused explosive rises in the New York Stock Exchange in recent weeks for its apparent success in treating the Covid-19.

But Gilead’s business model does not guarantee that Americans most vulnerable to the virus, those with the lowest income, can benefit from the new product. After all, in 2014 the same company marketed a new antiviral drug for the treatment of hepatitis C under the Harvoni brand. The price: $ 1,000 a pill.

The same thing happened with PrEP4, a retroviral to combat AIDS patented by Gilead. “Gilead’s abusive prices have prevented hundreds of thousands of Americans from accessing this drug,” said the activist group PrEP4all.

Cuba develops a series of drugs that are part of the cocktail successfully used against the coronavirus

In the Cuban free public health system, everyone has access to drugs made in the scientific field. “In U.S.A. a private laboratory develops a formula and sells it to another company for testing, and then sells it to a pharmaceutical giant for marketing; and each sale depends on whether there are profit expectations, ”says Helen Yaffe, economist at the University of Glasgow and author of the book We are Cuba. “In Cuba the institutes work in collaboration and not in competition; it is faster because the criterion is the national interest and not the private interest ”.

This is the case of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Specializing in preventive medicine, Cuban health had already prioritized immunotherapy to face other epidemics, from dengue to meningitis. Thanks to this, in its response to the coronavirus, Cuba has been able to take advantage of dozens of drugs already in the development phase “to improve innate immunity,” explained Francisco Durán, director of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health, in an interview with the Efe agency.

Among the drugs are Interferon Alpha 2B, which was created in the 1980s in collaboration with other scientists in Helsinki to combat a dengue outbreak. Now it is produced in a joint venture with a Chinese company, while the institutes of the scientific pole develop new varieties of Interferon in order to improve its effectiveness against Covid-19.

The Cuban institutes also produce another antiretroviral of their own manufacture from the Kaletra range, and have adapted another drug, the CIGB 258, which was already under development before the pandemic for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Like Interferon Alpha 2B, CIGB 258 is a product of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).

These and other drugs, almost all manufactured and patented in Cuba, are components of the anti-Covid-19 cocktail that is used. The results are positive. Cuba has registered a mortality rate of 4.2% compared to 6% in the US and 12% in Spain, according to Johns Hopkins University, in Washington.

All that said, the US blockade is a serious problem for Cuban biotechnology. It complicates the importation of components for drugs, hinders their commercialization and makes research difficult, since the institutes depend on the exchange international exchange of ideas.

“The embargo limits us a lot but we are specialized in optimizing few resources working together and we have support from other countries, such as Spain,” said Maidalys Bravo Ramírez, a specialist at the National Genetics Center in an interview held in Havana.

Likewise, the embargo reduces Cuba’s ability to carry out massive tests and to commercialize its science in the international market and thus generate funds to finance Cuban health. “They need to create volume outside of Cuba; You can have a good product but if people don’t know about it, they won’t buy it, ”Ricard Torres, from the Institute of Economics in Havana, told La Vanguardia.

New York hospitals asked to access the Cuban Interferon but the US Administration blocks it

As Eduardo’s joke tells, the blockade does not only harm Cubans. Taking advantage of the two years of opening after the meeting between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, the Roswell Park clinic in New York signed an agreement with the Cuban State to jointly develop the drug CIMAvax, an effective vaccine in the prevention of cancer of lung. Now it clashes with Trump’s measures that tighten the embargo.

According to the directors of Roswell Park, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the body that regulates the pharmaceutical sector in the US, requires a ten-year trial period for CIMAvax compared to five for new drugs. from other countries. But in the current pandemic you cannot wait even ten days. “Desperate doctors in New York hospitals have called me asking how they can get Interferon Alpha 2B …” says Helen Yaffe. It’s not going to be possible. Interferon is being used in nine countries, including Spain, but the United States is not one of them.

Source: La Vanguardia