By Isaac Saney
Cuba continues to receive international accolades for its singular role in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This is illustrated by the numerous nominations of Cuba’s internationalist medical contingent – the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade against Disasters and Serious Epidemics – for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Many countries are drawing on Cuba’s expertise in fighting COVID-19. Almost 4,000 medical personnel in at least 39 countries and territories have participated and are participating in the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The Caribbean and Latin America have particularly benefited, with Cuban medical brigades in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Suriname, Grenada, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Mexico, Belize, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Henry Reeve health care personnel are organized in brigades depending on the local request. To date, 55 such brigades have served abroad during the pandemic, and several countries have requested the assistance of a second brigade when their case load spiked.
Cuba also offers treatment regimens, some of which are not available in the United States. A key component of the protocols being used on the island and in the medical missions is Cuba’s Interferon Alfa 2B Recombinant (IFNrec). Scientific journals like The Lancet and the World Journal of Pediatrics have recognized the impact of IFNrec. It has been used against various viral infections for which there are no specific therapies available, having demonstrated its ability to activate the patient’s immune system and to inhibit viral replication. In Cuba, IFNrec has been used successfully to combat outbreaks of dengue hemorrhagic fever and conjunctivitis, as well as to treat hepatitis B and C. It also demonstrated effectiveness in combatting and providing protection against infections caused by various versions of the coronavirus, such as SARS-CoV (the coronavirus of the 2002 outbreak) and SARS and MERS-CoV (the coronavirus of the 2012 outbreak).
IFNrec is a crucial part of Cuban treatment protocols and is also used as a preventative measure to protect health care workers from contagion. Various countries have incorporated IFNrec into their national protocols and clinical guidelines for COVID-19 treatment, where it is a crucial component of the anti-viral treatment to combat the coronavirus. Nebulized Interferon Alfa 2B is also recommended as a treatment for children and pregnant women with COVID-19. While IFNrec is not a panacea, it has shown considerable promise as a therapeutic response to COVID-19 in boosting the immune system’s response. Additionally, the Cuban-developed Itolizumab and Biomodulin T have been credited with reducing the death toll from COVID-19 and speeding recovery, especially in high-risk patients.
Cuba is also testing four COVID-19 vaccine candidates: Soberana 1 and Soberana 2, developed by the Finlay Vaccine Institute, and Mambisa and Abdala, produced by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. To date results have been very encouraging. At the time of writing, three of the candidates are either in phase 1 or phase 2 of clinical trials. Soberana 2 is already in phase 3 testing, with Abdala poised to start later in March. These testing stages evaluate efficacy and safety. All candidates must pass phase 3 testing in which the efficacy and safety is further confirmed by expanded trials encompassing thousands of persons. If they successfully pass this stage, Soberana 2 and Abdala will be very close to final approval for use in Cuba and the world. Havana is already making preparations for mass production.
The Caribbean island has considerable expertise in vaccine design, development and manufacture. Currently, Cuba’s biopharmaceutical industry already produces eight vaccines that are integral to the island’s immunization program. In the 1980s, it developed the first vaccine against meningitis, and also produces a hepatitis B vaccine.
The Cuban government plans to have all Cubans vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2021. Vaccinations will also be available to visitors. Havana also intends to produce 100 million vaccine doses for use across the global South, with various countries having already reserved doses. Export of Cuban pharmaceutical products is managed through the state company BioCubaFarma, which currently distributes more than 300 products to at least 50 countries. Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, BioCubaFarma’s Director of Science and Innovation, outlined Havana’s objective: “In the second half of the year, we will be able to immunize the entire population, and also provide doses to the countries that require it. It is about sharing with the world what we are, the answer that Cuba can give to the problem of the pandemic.”
Driving Cuba’s vaccine production is not only the determination to protect and preserve the health of the people of Cuba and the world but also the exercise and defence of sovereignty and the right of self-determination. For example, Soberana means sovereignty in Spanish, while Abdala is named for the famous poem by José Martí, Cuba’s national hero and principal intellectual, author and organizer of the 1895-1898 war to free Cuba from Spanish colonial domination. Mambisa is a direct reference to Cuba’s national liberation fighters during the19th century wars for independence.
In this time of pandemic, Cuba’s international medical humanitarianism reflects the island’s history and dedication over the last six decades to concrete international solidarity. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Cuba established an unparalleled legacy of internationalism: actively supporting and engaging in the anti-colonial and national liberation struggles and social development and emancipation aspirations of countries across the global South. From the early 1960s, more than 400,000 Cuban health care workers have served in 164 countries. In southern Africa, more than 2,000 Cubans gave their lives to defeat the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Nelson Mandela never forgot. After he was released from prison, one of the first countries outside of Africa and the first country in Latin America that he chose to visit was Cuba.
Today this commitment to humanity is mirrored in the thousands of Cuban medical personnel and educators who continue to serve around the world. Many of the medical personnel now intimately involved in the fight against COVID-19 are part of the specially trained Henry Reeve International Brigade, which distinguished itself in the fight against the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
As Havana provides invaluable international assistance, it is also engaged in its own fight against COVID-19 on the island. It is doing this in the face of an unrelenting economic war waged by Washington against the people of Cuba, a war that limits the island’s access to equipment and other necessary items required to preserve the health of Cubans. Under the Trump regime, the U.S. economic war against Cuba reached unprecedented levels with more than 240 distinct measures being targeted against the island nation.
Standing out as the epitome of duplicity was the designation of Cuba by the United States as a sponsor of state terrorism. It is Cuba, since 1959, that has been the victim of all manner of terrorist attacks that have been carried out with the complicity, participation and sponsorship of Washington. Many of these acts of terror were directly launched from and/or planned in the United States. Some 3,478 Cubans have been killed and 2,099 injured as a result of these acts of terrorism.
This last move by the Trump regime reflected Washington’s failure to isolate Cuba in international relations and public opinion. This failure is poignantly underscored by the growing global movement — encompassing parliamentarians, prominent world figures, distinguished academics and multiple petitions — to award Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Brigade the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. These nominations argue instead that it is Cuba that shows the world a model of international relations that stands diametrically opposed to terrorism.
Despite ongoing U.S. aggression, Cuba continues to prioritize the health and lives of its citizens. For example, despite having a population similar in size to Los Angeles county in the U.S., Cuba has more than 70 times fewer deaths from COVID-19. In the case of New York City, Cuba’s death rate is more than 100 times smaller. The Cuban government affirms and upholds that health care is a human right and places the well-being of its people at the centre of its policies and political decisions. Every Cuban is visited regularly by a doctor and has free access to all the treatment protocols available on the island.
There is a growing recognition that Cuba’s example needs to be globalized. A pandemic is by definition global. Surely, in the face of this worldwide menace, now is the time for international medical cooperation and solidarity. A time for joint efforts to confront COVID-19. A time to put political differences aside in order to save lives. As Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez declared on March 27, 2020: “Humanity faces a common challenge. This pandemic does not respect borders or ideologies. It threatens the lives of all, and it is everyone’s responsibility to address it.”
This is especially imperative as social fissures and chasms, the historic and prevalent inequalities, inequities and disparities, particularly in the health care system, have not only been starkly exposed but also amplified. Recognizing this imperative, 15 U.S. cities, states and labour councils, at present, have passed resolutions calling for medical collaboration and cooperation with Cuba.
Cuban internationalist medical missions are the lived expression of symbolic dreamcatchers. Just as dreamcatchers allow only good dreams to pass through, while preventing nightmares, so too the Cuban medical internationalist missions do their utmost to stop the nightmares of disease from reaching the people. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, in a world fraught with the dangers of planetary-wide conflagration, the Cuban medical brigades demonstrate that relations among the world’s nations and peoples do not have to be determined by self-interest and the pursuit of power and wealth. They hold out to us the inspirational example that it is possible to build relations based on genuine human solidarity.
Cuba is also in the midst of a significant domestic project of rectification and economic renewal. The immediate context is monetary unification and the recent significant expansion of the non-state sector, i.e. self-employment and private economic activity. The broader context is the more than decade-long series of economic measures to address inefficiencies and distortions in the Cuban economic model. As the new arrangements are being phased in, the Cuban government has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment that no one will be abandoned or left to fend for themselves. All the social guarantees remain in force, including universal free health care and education and an array of other social programs.
The aim of the restructuring is to strengthen social programs, not privatize nor dismantle them. As former Cuban President Raúl Castro stated, the goal is to achieve a sustainable and prosperous socialism. However, it is no small feat for any country to overcome the worldwide economic crisis in a manner that favours its people, not the global monopolies. A number of questions naturally arise: How will the historic commitment of the Cuban Revolution to the goal of equality – especially gender and racial equity – be affected by the new economic policies? Do these measures entail fundamental departures from the previous praxis of the Cuban Revolution?
Across Cuba a frequent slogan emblazoned on billboards is, “Each day in the World 200 Million Children Sleep in the Streets. Not one is Cuban.” Perhaps, in these uncertain times, in the face of immense challenges, this best sums up what Cuba represents and strives to be.
Stabroek News, March 8, 2021