Health

Cuba ‘picks sweet fruits’ thanks to domestic vaccines


With two “homegrown” vaccines, Abdala and Soberana 02, Cuba surpasses many developed countries in vaccination speed, helping to reduce the rate of nCoV infection deeply.

In the 19th century, General Máximo Gómez, a key figure in Cuba’s wars of independence with Spain, once said: “The Cubans either failed to achieve their goal, or far exceeded their original goal. “.

More than a century later, this maxim has become a reality. Despite facing shortages of electricity and many goods, Cuba has a higher Covid-19 vaccination rate than many developed countries.

More than 90% of people get at least one dose of vaccine, 83% are fully vaccinated, second only to the United Arab Emirates in the group of countries with a population of more than one million people.

“The idea that Cuba, with its 11 million people and limited incomes, could become a biotech powerhouse sounds unbelievable to the people who work at Pfizer. But it doesn’t to Cuba,” said John Kirk, professor Emeritus professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, Canada.

At the onset of the pandemic, Cuba decided not to rely on vaccines from other countries. Researchers and officials say the US economic embargo could prevent the supply of vaccines to the country.

“Most importantly, protect our own people,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director general of the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana.

After this statement, the Finlay Institute and biotech centers in the country began to develop a vaccine, hoping at least one candidate would be effective.

Officials bet on domestic vaccines and the gamble pays off. In early 2022, Cuba became the smallest country in the world to successfully develop and produce a “homegrown” vaccine. Since then, the country has sped up vaccinations for adults and children, all voluntary.

Cuba has mainly used Abdala and Soberana 02 vaccines since July last year. Two vaccines were also exported to Venezuela, Vietnam, Iran and Nicaragua.

Soberana 02 vaccine, developed by Finlay Vaccine Institute, is based on recombinant protein technology, does not require storage in cold storage at sub-zero temperatures. Abdala, developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), is a subunit vaccine that contains harmless fragments (proteins) of nCoV instead of the entire pathogen. After being vaccinated, the body recognizes foreign proteins, thereby creating antibodies and white blood cells to protect themselves (T-lymphocytes). These cells remember and fight viruses in the future.

This is the traditional technology commonly used for most vaccines in children such as whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria and meningococcal disease.

Both vaccines are more than 90% effective. The successful vaccination program has helped reduce Cuba’s infection rate from the highest in the Western Hemisphere to the lowest it is today. Last August, the country reported hundreds of deaths from Covid-19 every week. Last week, authorities recorded only three deaths.

Cristian Artimbau, 14, receives the Soberana 02 vaccine during a clinical trial in Havana, Cuba, June 2021. Photo: Reuters

The vaccine’s success is all the more striking when compared with the shortfalls in the country’s own health system. Because of the sharp cut in foreign currency flows in the past two years, Cuba is so short of antibiotics that 20 tablets of amoxicillin on the black market cost the equivalent of a month’s minimum wage for civil servants. Without plaster casts, doctors in some provinces had to wrap fracture patients’ legs in used cardboard.

Cuban domestic vaccines have a number of advantages over competitors in the market.

The biggest advantage is safety. Older vaccines, made with live or attenuated viruses, have some risks, offset by strong immunity and a convenient single-dose mechanism. However, as pathogens become less common, the risks easily outweigh the benefits. Besides, live vaccines can change genetics in some cases, causing the virus to become active again, causing harm to the body.

Subunit vaccines eliminate both of these hazards. Instead of the entire pathogen, it contains only specific fragments of the virus to stimulate immunity. This is an extremely safe method of vaccination that can be used by most people, regardless of health status.

Abdala and Soberana 02 are stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius, instead of requiring deep freezers like other mRNA vaccines. This advantage solves logistical concerns in areas where conditions are limited.

After weeks of recording around 100 F0 a day, the infection rate in Cuba increased because Omicron was easily spread. Scientists have not yet published data on the effectiveness of the vaccine on the new strain, but have begun to adjust the vaccine to suit the actual situation.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Ministry of Health quickly deployed booster injections, aiming to vaccinate one more dose of the vaccine for the entire population this month.

Thuc Linh (Follow Guardian)

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