Tue. May 24th, 2022

We have entered the era of pandemics. COVID-19 dominates the news, and rightly so; January saw a record high number of cases worldwide. But that’s not all. The AIDS pandemic is raging – 34 percent of people with HIV did not receive a viral suppressant by 2020. Meanwhile, a rapidly changing climate is going to drive malaria, as warmer temperatures are helping to spread disease-carrying mosquitoes. The World Bank estimates that 5.2 billion people will contract the disease by 2050.

Yet we have no plan to end today’s pandemics – or stop tomorrow’s. On the contrary, like the AIDS crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen empty promises and meager donations, overshadowed by panicked reactions from governments, stigmatization of marginalized communities and uncontrolled profit-seeking by pharmaceutical companies.

If there is one thing I have learned from my work to combat the AIDS pandemic, it is that we simply cannot rely on the wisdom of pharmaceutical executives or the generosity of the Global North where they live. To end the pandemic, we need a radical break, a transformative shift away from the short-term and for-profit model of global health management. But what would a new model look like?

Go to Cuba. While world leaders have delayed decisive action, Cuba has developed its own COVID-19 vaccines, successfully vaccinated most of its population and is now ready to help vaccinate the world. His approach is based on two principles: investing in public health and internationalism.

In the summer of 2021, Cuba’s regulatory agency CECMED approved two home-grown vaccines, Soberana and Abdala, which are declared to be more than 90 percent effective – making Cuba top the list of countries within months, according to vaccination figures. With 86 percent of the island’s population now vaccinated, Cuba’s vaccines are touted as the “best hope for low-income countries” – especially since they are said to be cheap to produce, can be manufactured to scale and do not require freezing. .

Cuba’s vaccines have been obtained from medical journals and the country has sought emergency use approval for its vaccines from the World Health Organization. Vicente Verez, head of Cuba’s Finlay vaccine institute, said all necessary documents and data would be submitted to the WHO in the first quarter of 2022.

How could Cuba achieve this feat? The country has a long history of prioritizing public health and investing in pharmaceutical production. This focus was driven in part by the need for domestically produced goods to overcome the scarcity caused by the grueling American embargo imposed after the Cuban Socialist Revolution, but also by a strong commitment to public health over private profit.

Between 1990 and 1996 alone, Cuba invested $ 1 billion, about 1.5 percent of its GDP, in a group of biotechnology institutions where any money earned was reinvested. Today, 517 of the approximately 800 medicines consumed in Cuba are produced domestically, boosting the country’s public healthcare capacity. The benefit of Cuba’s substantial government investment in medical science means that the benefits accrue to the Cuban people, not Big Pharma. In contrast, governments of countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have given away the rights to vaccines produced with enormous public funding. Consequently, pharmaceutical companies keep vaccine prescriptions under lock and key.

I remember listening to the words of the then WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in 2015 when Cuba became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission. She calls it “one of the greatest achievements in public health possible”. For those of us in the movement, it was an important milestone, a source of hope for an AIDS-free generation.

When public health and medical science reinforce each other, every successive success comes on the backs of previous ones. The technology for Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines, for example, has been adapted from an existing hepatitis B vaccine, leading to faster studies.

While rich countries stockpile vaccines and make large pharmaceutical companies super profits by refusing to share technology, Cuba has declared its commitment to share its vaccines through open licensing and at low prices. It began exporting the two homemade vaccines to several countries in need and, more importantly, plans to send teams to Vietnam and Iran to support technology transfer to help those countries produce the vaccines domestically.

This second principle, of internationalism, is best illustrated by Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade, often referred to as an “army of white coats”. At the start of the pandemic, Crema, a small town in Italy, overwhelmed itself with a surge of cases, with few public hospitals and doctors at its disposal. Before long, 52 Cuban health workers showed up to help; their “sense of humanity overwhelmed us”, said the town’s mayor Stefania Bonaldi. Since the start of the pandemic, some 40 countries across five continents have received Cuban medics.

Building on this legacy, representatives of Cuba’s state-run biotechnology organization BioCubaFarma and the Ministry of Public Health will address the international press and members of the scientific community this week in a showcase of Cuban vaccines. The briefing, convened by Progressive International, is an opportunity for the international media and community to interview Cubans about the development, regulatory protocols and deployment of their COVID-19 vaccines.

There can be no illusions about the way forward. The US embargo will limit Cuba’s ability to access credit and cooperate with suppliers, reducing its ability to produce and export on a scale. Cuba needs to move quickly to share not only its vaccine, but also its message and model of internationalism. Whatever our reservations about Cuba’s political system, its commitment to global health equality is unparalleled. If we follow its example, it could announce an end to the rule of pharmaceutical monopolies enforced by rich countries. A new international health order has been reached.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.

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