By Gerardo Szalkowicz
If not for the unwritten premise of the imperialist media that anything good about Cuba is not to be reported, it would be striking that this piece of news has gone practically unnoticed: that in recent days the vaccine “Soberana 01” [“Sovereign” in English – Ed Note] began clinical trials in humans and became the first in Latin America – and in the entire so-called underdeveloped world – to advance to this second phase.
So far there are 167 potential vaccines registered for Covid-19. The Cuban one joined 29 others that the WHO has already approved for clinical studies, six of which are in phase 3 that involves large-scale human testing. In Latin America there are another dozen national vaccines in development but, except for the Cuban one, all are in the preclinical phase.
The candidate vaccine that the island is producing is advancing steadily. Since clinical trials began on August 24, “it has reported zero serious adverse events after the injection of the first 20 volunteers” tweeted Dagmar García Rivera, director of research at the Finlay Institute, the Cuban state scientific centre that is directing the project. The sample will include 676 people between the ages of 19 and 80 with the results expected on February 1. In the event there is a happy ending, Cuba will have its own vaccine available to the population in the first quarter of 2021.
Things are moving at a steady and accelerated pace. “What normally takes years has been achieved in just under three months,” says Finlay’s Director Vicente Vérez Bencomo. “In the phase of pharmaceutical development and preclinical studies in animals it presented low risks, few uncertainties and encouraging results.” Based on these initial indicators, on July 28 the vaccine was tested on three of its researchers, who also presented a high immune response.
That Cuba is marching, once again, at the forefront in the scientific-health field is the result of long accumulated experience in preventive medicine, mass immunisation and the development of a biotechnology industry of undeniable international prestige. Since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, professional training was promoted by the universities and a Scientific Hub was created with the aim of combining research with production.
The development of vaccines is one of its most significant achievements: Cuba produces eight of the 11 vaccines used in its national immunisation programme, which has over 98 per cent coverage and, of course, is free and universal. The first vaccination campaign was carried out in 1962, resulting in Cuba becoming the first country to eradicate polio. Another of its milestones was to achieve, in 1990, its own vaccine against Hepatitis-B which led to the practical disappearance of the disease. A noteworthy fact is that the Cuban medical research platform, consisting of 32 state companies with more than 10,000 workers dedicated to the production of medicines and vaccines, is made up mostly of women.
Sovereignty, the byword
Achieving a 100 per cent national vaccine in a country with great economic limitations – mainly due to the United States blockade – is of vital importance. President Miguel Díaz-Canel highlighted the concept that distinguishes “Soberana 01” and for which it is named:
“The name of the vaccine reflects the feeling of patriotism and the revolutionary and humanist commitment with which the work embodied in it was carried out. Exploits like these reaffirm our pride in being Cubans.”
The policy of producing and applying vaccines is only one leg of a comprehensive health system that is an example for the world. In 1959 Cuba had just 6,000 doctors and today it has more than 100,000, the highest number per inhabitant in Latin America and one of the highest globally. It is also the only country in the region that has eliminated severe child malnutrition: none of the 146 million underweight children living in the world today are Cuban.
The emphasis on preventive medicine has also been key to controlling the coronavirus. After almost six months of a pandemic, Cuba registers just over 4,000 infections and 100 deaths – one of the lowest mortality rates in the world, with eight deaths per million inhabitants (the highest is Peru with 871).
The island’s health education has as its universal bastion the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), which has graduated 7,248 doctors from 45 countries in 20 years, including about 200 from the United States.
That internationalist solidarity is perhaps the main hallmark of the Cuban model. The medical brigades, which have been deployed around the world for six decades, have put heart and soul into all the natural disasters and epidemics (from the 1960 earthquake in Chile to Ebola in Africa). Before the pandemic, there were about 30 thousand health workers providing services in 61 countries. They were joined by 46 brigades that left this year to collaborate in the fight against Covid-19. So the proposal that has been gaining momentum, to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the “army of white coats” – as Fidel Castro called them – does not sound off-base at all.
(Cubadebate, September 3, 2020. Translated from the original Spanish by TML Weekly.)