QBD’s long biotech investment could pay off in COVID vaccines

Dr. Gustavo Sierra is a one-story name in Cuban medicine, with awards and seats on Cuba’s most powerful committee to prove it. He led a team to create a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis, a horrific infection that causes inflammation of the meninges.

That vaccine formed the basis of Soberana-01, One of the five vaccines Cuba is more or less the equivalent of CVD-19 than Latin America or any other country of similar size in the world.

Two of the other vaccine candidates, Soberana-02 and Abdala, are set to be arrested. Maria Elena Soto, director of primary health care at the Cuban Ministry of Health, announced on April 22 that 1.7 million volunteers from Havana would be vaccinated in the new trial.

Cuba’s confidence in its own defense means it has not signed up to COAVX, through which the World Health Organization (WHO) distributes vaccines to poor countries.

Volunteers wait to measure blood pressure with nurses after being infected with a dose of the Soberana-02 Covid-19 vaccine in Havana, Cuba [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

If its vaccines work, it will be a startling achievement, but it’s no surprise to those who trained in Cuban healthcare.

University College London Professor of Pathology. Miguel Perez-Machado told Al Jazeera: “People’s perception of Cuba is music, old cars, rams and beaches.” But Cuba has invested heavily in biotechnology and its scientists since the early 1980s.

Over the years, these scientists have developed vaccines for whole illnesses, including hepatitis, tetanus and meningococcal meningitis Dr. Sierra. These are now the “platforms” on which its new COVID vaccines are based.

“I was at home in early March when a family doctor knocked on my door,” said Gretel Escalona, ​​a 22-month-old mother in the Havana area of ​​Playa. “My block was selected for a three-stage trial of Soberana 02. I met all the requirements of a young, healthy, childbearing age.”

He visited a clinic not far from the city’s famous Casa de la Musica. “Everyone was very excited and relieved. The frustration for solving this epidemic is so great that I think we are happy to be part of the test. People rely heavily on Cuban scientists. ”

Vicente Verez Bencommo is director-general of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana, responsible for the three Sobrana “candidates”. In a rare interview last week, he told the scientific journal Nature that Cuban President Miguel Daz-Canel had called for vaccines to be developed in May last year: “We had to give up other projects. It was not possible to continue doing anything else. ”

Cuba is caught between a rock and a tough place. Its per capita income is listed above $ 4,000, which means it is not one of the 92 countries eligible for free vaccines through COX. But these figures do not take into account the recent economic downturn that has only enabled the centralized state to feed its people.

A masked health worker warns against the spread of the new coronavirus in front of a man sitting at the entrance to his isolated home in Havana, Cuba [ File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

“Cuba had to pay and didn’t have the money,” said Perez Riveral, a post-doctoral fellow at Sওo Paulo State University in Brazil and an experienced researcher at Cuban laboratories. Another problem, according to Veriz Bencome, was: “What we’re seeing around the world is that rich countries continue to accumulate vaccine supplies.”

And so, using infrastructure built in the 1960s, Cuban scientists began rebuilding previously developed vaccines.

The move has become a source of pride for the people. The Washington Post has made headlines such as “Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse against adversity”. Some people think that “can” in this sentence is working too much. “If it doesn’t work, they will blame the forms,” ​​confused a Cuban observer.

Such skepticism is not difficult to grasp. Access to basic medicines – and food – requires a few hours of quitting if possible now. Residents use heart-transmitting WhatsApp messages to look for heart-healing drugs and antibiotics.

“Anyone get tetracycline?” Read a recent one. “This is for a child who recently had surgery for a serious eye infection. ”

Meanwhile, there is an outbreak of scabies and there is no benzyl benzoate for it yl authorities blame the 60-year-old U.S. ban, the suffocation by Donald Trump, and the release of Joe Biden.

A technologist showed Soberana 02 the Cuban-made COVID-19 vaccine at the Finlay Vaccine Institute’s packaging processing plant in Havana, Cuba. [File: Yamil Lage/Pool via AP]

Such a crisis, however, raises questions about the focus on COVID; Verez Bencom felt the need to tell nature: “I can assure you that not a single penny was added to the money to make medicine or to buy food – both very rarely at the moment – not diverted to CVID. Vaccines.”

Cuba will return to its impressive network of family doctors and nurses to get the vaccines out. Medical students are coming to every home in the country to check the symptoms and to name the immunization program.

The virus has completely collapsed in the tourism industry, and it is hoped that the vaccines could prove financially viable (although Cuba has said it will provide free aid to poor countries).

Verez Bencomo said they were looking to countries to provide funding so that Cuba could “invest the resources we do not have in production”. There was also talk of “vaccine tourism”, offering visitors the option to buy a job for beach and culture visitors.

Day laborers load a truckload of potatoes into Guinea, Cuba, on Friday, March 22, 2021. Authorities are promoting the production of basic staple foods and many essential vegetables have disappeared from the market[File: Ramon Espinosa/AP]

Cuba is particularly susceptible to viruses. It is a country of Abuollos or grandparents, the medieval age is surprisingly high 42.2 years (in Britain it is 40, Haiti side door 22.7).

And so Soberana-20 and probably Abdala with his 1.7 million “volunteers” will be out before the end of this huge test. “It’s something that only certain countries – China can do,” said Perez-Machado in London. “It will be illegal elsewhere, people will be able to sue. It’s not an example to follow, I don’t think. “

But the pressure is growing. Cuba has been heroic in keeping Cowvid out of the country for more than 2020, but new daily occurrences have now risen to over a thousand. Mortality is also on the rise (although still much lower than in other places). A total of 64644 people have died till Sunday. Among them, last week, Soberana-01 Heart meningitis vaccine maker Dr. Gustavo Sierra.

Despite the concerns, public support remains strong. There will be no US-style problems with adoption.

Rolando Berrio lives in Santa Clara, the square city where Che Guevara won his biggest battle and started the revolution that Cuba dreamed of competing with the world for talent. Santa Clara has a long history of great musicians, romantic singers and Berry is one of the best of them all.

“These days weren’t very good for those of us who need public spaces for our music, theater and dance,” he said. “Cavid-19 has erased the most important part of any work in the industry: the public. These vaccines represent a return to life.

“The island I love is a combination of history, invisibility, sacrifice, error – and many successes – so it brings my soul back.”

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