Cuba has long been a biotech juggernaut in the Caribbean. When health crises emerge around the globe or there’s a medical disaster, Cuba is often one of the first nation’s to send medical staff and emergency workers to help. Its medical team has become part of the country’s diplomacy.
But the Coronavirus pandemic has brought economic devastation to a country already facing severe economic issues. Many on the island struggle to even find daily necessities like Tylenol or Band-Aids yet the Cuban government is just steps away from developing its own vaccine against COVID-19. How is this possible?
Cuban researches are making their own Coronavirus vaccine and seeing great results.
Currently on the island, there are five vaccine candidates in development, with two already in late-stage trials. Cuban officials say they’re developing cheap and easy-to-store serums. They are able to last at room temperature for weeks, and in long-term storage as high as 46.4 degrees, potentially making them a viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international race for coronavirus vaccines.
If they’re successful and developing and rolling out the vaccine, Cuba – a country where the average scientific researcher earns about $250 a month — could be among the first nations in the world to reach herd immunity, putting it in a position to lure vaccine tourists and to export surpluses of what officials claim could reach 100 million doses by year’s end.
If they pull this off, it would be a big win for the communist government.
Achieving success would be an against-the-odds feat of medical science and a public relations win for the isolated country of 11 million people. Cuba was just added back to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in the final days of the Trump administration.
It could also make Cuba the pharmacist for nations lumped by Washington into the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Countries like Iran and Venezuela have already inked vaccine deals with Havana. Iran has even agreed to host a Phase 3 trial of one of Cuba’s most promising candidates — Soberana 2 — as part of a technology transfer agreement that could see millions of doses manufactured in Iran.
“We have great confidence in Cuban medical science and biotechnology,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told The Washington Post this week. “It will not only be fundamental for Venezuela, but for the Americas. It will be the true solution for our people.”
So how is Cuba managing to pull this off despite all the challenges they face?
Cuba is an authoritarian, one-party state with strict controls on everything from free speech and political activism to social media and LGBTQ rights. But the island has always invested heavily in education and healthcare, which has led to an unusually sophisticated biotechnology industry for a small developing country, with at least 31 research companies and 62 factories with over 20,000 workers.
Should Cuba’s vaccines succeed, its researchers will have overcome even more hurdles than their peers in Western labs — including shortages of equipment, spare parts and other supplies, due in part to U.S. sanctions
A successful vaccine could also become a vital new source of revenue for Cuba, which has been suffering a brutal economic crisis that has citizens waiting hours in line to buy scarce food, soap and toothpaste. The economy worsened under Trump-era sanctions that tightened the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba by curbing remittances, scaling back U.S. flights, ending cruise ship passenger traffic and further complicating Cuba’s access to the global financial system. President Biden has called for a possible return to Obama-era policies, but he has made no such moves yet.
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