A man stands near a Cuban national flag at the Melia Varadero International Hotel in Matanzas province on October 23, 2020. Varadero, Cuba’s most important seaside resort, is reopening for international tourism amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Cuba’s most promising vaccine candidate, of the four it has under development, is called Soberana 02. The name of the vaccine translates from Spanish to “sovereign”, an apparent nod to Cuba’s sense of national pride in its world-famous health system.
Soberana 02 is due to enter Phase 3 trials from March 1, and officials say tests will include as many as 150,000 volunteers within a few weeks. Phase 3 trials represent the final stage before a vaccine is generally approved by national regulatory authorities.
It comes at a time when many people in Cuba are being forced to wait for hours to buy basic goods, and as authorities continue to navigate a decades-old US trade embargo – with sanctions tightened further in recent years by former President Donald Trump .
“It’s just this incredible dichotomy,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and associate professor of economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC by telephone.
“On the one hand, you have this high-tech biotechnology sector that brings a lot of hope to the global south because it’s the possibility of an affordable vaccine – (and) vaccination of the global south will be a priority,” Yaffe said.
“And at the same time, Cubans get up at four or five in the morning to get in line because there is a real shortage of really basic food and even medicine.”
What do we know about Soberana 02?
Cuba’s Finlay Institute, the country’s leading biopharma institution, oversees the development of Soberana 02. Vicente Verez, director of the institute, has suggested that the vaccine could be made available as an option to tourists later in the year.
If Soberana 02 proves to be safe and effective, the development of a domestically produced vaccine is likely to be hailed as an astonishing scientific breakthrough and a significant political triumph. It would also see Cuba become the first country in Latin America to immunize its population with a domestically produced vaccine.
Technician Mayelin Mejias is working at the Vaccine Aseptic and Packaging Processing Plant at the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana on January 20, 2021.
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The government has not yet outlined specific plans for vaccinating tourists, but analysts say it is possible that foreigners traveling to Cuba could receive their first vaccine dose on the island before receiving subsequent doses to take home with them.
While public data are limited, it is believed that up to three doses of the vaccine could be administered at two-week intervals.
Yaffe, who is also the author of “We Are Cuba !: How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World,” said Cuba’s sophisticated health care system would help the country roll out the vaccine “extremely” quickly.
“I can guarantee that. And if they get a vaccine that is every other week, people can be vaccinated within a month of starting,” Yaffe said.
“In the summer, people will be pretty desperate to go on holiday, and I think Cuba, which calls itself an ideal destination. People are already talking about sun, sea, sand and Soberana 02. So I would not stay surprised if people end up going to Cuba and looking for the vaccine and I’m sure the Cubans will offer it. “
How does it work?
The Soberana 02 vaccine is a conjugate vaccine. This is a type of vaccine that carries a portion of the spike protein that binds or conjugates to human cells to enhance its stability and effectiveness.
Unlike other coronavirus vaccine candidates, such as Pfizer-BioNTech among others, Soberana 02 does not require additional cooling requirements. This is likely to simplify the logistical and administrative challenges associated with vaccination programs in low-income countries.
People are queuing up to buy food in Havana on February 2, 2021, as Covid-19 cases rise in the island nation.
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At a virtual session led by the Pan American Health Organization on February 5, Dr. Verez that Soberana 02 had returned “encouraging results” in the early stages of testing. He added that the vaccination had not yet generated any significant side effects.
The Cuban government has said it will produce 100 million doses of Soberana 02 this year to meet the demands of its own citizens as well as those in other countries. It aims to be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its entire population by 2021, despite many advanced nations starting to administer jabs almost two months ago.
Several countries have expressed interest in acquiring the vaccine, such as Vietnam, Iran, Venezuela and the African Union – which represent all 55 countries in Africa.
Cuba, which has registered relatively few cases of Covid compared to other countries in the region, has seen a sharp increase in infections and deaths in recent weeks. To date, Cuba has recorded 45,361 cases of coronavirus and 300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
‘One of the world’s best kept secrets’
Cuba has long been known for its medical diplomacy with thousands of specialists sent abroad to help countries tackle short-term crises, natural disasters and medical emergencies.
Human rights groups have expressed concern that the Cuban government is imposing oppressive rules on doctors working abroad, citing the right to privacy, freedom of expression and association.
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Cuba is estimated to have had 24,500 medical staff working in 58 countries. Another 4,000 members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade, a group of highly respected health workers, have gone to work in countries from Kuwait to Mexico, Italy to South Africa.
Cuban doctors during a welcome ceremony for Cuban health workers sent to the Western Cape to support efforts in the fight against COVID-19 on 24 May 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Misha Jordaan | Gallo Images via Getty Images
It is a deeply rooted tradition, meaning that the country of just over 11 million is believed to have more medical staff working abroad than all the G-7 countries combined.
“This is an extraordinary record, largely unknown to the mainstream media – one of the world’s best kept secrets,” John Kirk, a professor of Latin America’s program at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, told CNBC via email.
“Medical internationalism is in the Cuban DNA, and the introduction to the Cuban constitution actually mentions the obligation that Cuba has to share its medical talent with developing countries,” he added.