Cuba says it's 'betting it safe' with its own Covid vaccine

HAVANA – Cuba is “safe” with the later development of its own Covid-19 vaccines and is encouraged by what they see in late-stage and experimental studies, a leading Cuban vaccine scientist said.

If the trials are successful, the relatively small communist island of 11 million people, which has been sanctioned by the United States for decades, would be one of the few countries using vaccines against the coronavirus pandemic and power on its potential worldwide performance attentive.

The other countries that have developed vaccines, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and India, have vastly larger economies and populations.

Two of Cuba’s five vaccine candidates are in phase 3 trials: Soberana 2, which translates as “sovereignty”, and Abdala, named after a book by Cuban independence hero José Martí.

Around 44,000 people will receive the Soberana 2 vaccine as part of the phase 3 double-blind study. Another 150,000 health care workers are being vaccinated with Soberana 2 as part of an “intervention study”.

The experimental vaccine for Cuba is similar to the Novavax vaccine developed in the US. Unlike the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the Soberana 2 uses synthesized coronavirus proteins to trigger the body’s immune system.

“We see that the vaccine is very safe, the potential risk of using it in more people decreases and the potential benefits increase. There is evidence of some effectiveness and that is why we decided to expand the interventional studies, ”said Dr. Vicente Verez, director of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines, told NBC News. The institute is named after the Cuban epidemiologist Dr. Carlos Finlay, who discovered that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.

The institute was founded in 1991 by the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who invested heavily in the country’s health system and pharmaceuticals sector. The Cancer Research Center developed a vaccine that is being tested in the US and other countries.

In Cuba, “we started a little later than the other vaccines [in the world] because we had to wait to know a little more about the virus and the mechanism by which it infects cells, ”said Verez. “We see a safety profile with the vaccine [Soberana 2] that’s very good. “

With its economy ravaged by the pandemic, decades of sanctions, and a decline in aid from its ally Venezuela, the island is grappling with food and medical shortages. The economy shrank by 11 percent in 2020. However, compared to many developed countries around the world, it has managed to keep the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths low with strict measures and bans. Over the past few weeks, the country has had an average of 1,000 cases per day, but infection rates have been very low over the past year.

The final results of the phase 3 studies are not expected for months. The government plans to vaccinate almost all residents of the capital Havana through the intervention study by May and vaccinate the entire population of the country before the end of the year.

A person wearing a mask walks down a street in Havana on April 6, 2021.Yamil Location / AFP – Getty Images

Verez said that while vaccination is not mandatory, he believes that “the vast majority of the population want the vaccine”.

For Cuba, the vaccine is both public health and violence. that a small communist country sanctioned by the US can compete on the world stage with its own vaccine candidates.

Cuba could have purchased vaccines from its allies China and Russia, but developing its own vaccines gives it the opportunity to sell vaccines to underdeveloped countries where few doses have been given, giving it a source of much-needed hard currency. When US and UK vaccines advanced in clinical trials last year, wealthy countries in North America and Europe reserved large amounts, leaving poor and developing countries with a large access gap.

Verez said some countries have turned to Cuban officials to buy more than 100 million doses of some of their vaccines each year. He said Cuba’s vaccine production system will be reorganized to produce 100 million doses.

Iran, which banned US and UK vaccines, will a Phase 3 trial of Soberana 2 as part of an agreement This includes making millions of cans. Venezuela will manufacture Abdala vaccines, the government announced on Thursday. Mexico and Argentina have also expressed an interest in Cuba’s vaccines.

“You are very safe,” said Dr. Eduardo Martínez Díaz, President of the state BioCubaFarma, in responses to questions via email. “After using thousands of doses, only mild and moderate side effects were seen in a small percentage of the volunteers.”

Díaz added that both vaccines create high levels of immunity. If exported, prices would be affordable, he said.

Verez said the vaccines will be adapted to the new variants and additional doses may be needed to boost immunity.

Carmen Sesin reported from Miami and Orlando Matos from Havana.

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