The plucky island nation has overcome debilitating sanctions and is now on the cusp of producing a working vaccine against the coronavirus.
Ihosvany Castellanos Santos is apologetic about responding late to messages, the internet is expensive and the economic situation in Cuba is far from good.
That, however, hasn't stopped the country from becoming an unlikely contender in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.
Santos, an associate professor at the country’s health institute is optimistic of the strides his country has made in trials towards a working Covid-19 vaccine.
The government-backed Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV) has produced a vaccine that is currently entering Phase 3 trials.
While Latin American heavyweights Brazil and Mexico vie for supply deals from Western, Chinese and Russian pharmaceutical companies Cuba has four prospective vaccines in the pipeline.
The "Sovereign 02" as one of the vaccines is called, alludes to what it means for this small island nation to achieve a meaningful working vaccine given its superpower neighbour’s attempt to economically cripple the country over the last six decades. The Sovereign 02 is also furthest ahead in the trials.
Cuba, Santos tells TRT World, decided to invest in its own vaccine due to the “financial persecution” the country faces from the United States, which subjected the country to “economic, commercial and financial blockades.”
US sanctions on the communist country include food and medicine which, according to a report, has dramatically harmed the “health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens.”
Those same “hostile policies” that have prevented ordinary Cubans from accessing healthcare are now also making it hard for the country to speed up vaccine research, says Santos.
“Since the clinical trials began on August 24, 2020, it [Sovereign 02] reports zero serious adverse events after the injection of the first volunteers,” says Santos adding “what is normally done in years has been accomplished in just under three months.”
Cuba, in the world of medicine, is known for offering high-quality healthcare at a low cost, in particular for developing countries.
The country boasts thousands of doctors working from Africa to Latin America and Asia providing primary care to millions of people – those networks and relationships may well be a template if its Covid-19 vaccine proves to be a success.
Cuba’s march at the “forefront in the scientific-health field” says Santos “is the result of a long accumulated experience in preventive medicine, mass immunisation and the development of a biotechnology industry of undeniable international prestige.”
In a visit to the country in 2014, the then director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, declared “Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation.”
That accumulated knowledge and self-sufficiency over decades, along with a determination to improve the life expectancy of its people despite sanctions, have undoubtedly contributed to the country's seemingly early success.
Now Cuba has entered into a partnership with another unlikely country, Iran, where it’s conducting Phase 3 trials of the Sovereign 02 vaccine. Cuba, with only 238 Covid-19 related deaths and less than 33,000 infections doesn’t have enough patients to test the vaccine on in a controlled trial.
Iran, another country that has faced crippling medical sanctions by the US continues to have several thousand cases per day. Tehran has already complained that the US has made the country’s efforts to deal with the virus worse by pressuring companies not to trade with Iran.
The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has banned the use of Western vaccines in the country branding them as “untrustworthy,” meaning that the country will have to rely on the Russian, Chinese and now perhaps the Cuban vaccine.
Cuba, already indigenously manufactures several vaccines for its national immunisation programme which is free and universal, and covers 98 percent of the population says Santos.
“In 1990, Cuba produced its own vaccine against Hepatitis B, practically achieving the disappearance of that disease, we also have several vaccines against different types of cancer and against diabetes,” adds Santos.
“In case of a happy ending, Cuba will have its own vaccine against the coronavirus available to the population in the first quarter of 2021,” he says.
If Sovereign 02 is successful, the country plans to produce 100 million vaccines this year. The vaccine could prove crucial to Latin American countries struggling to contain the virus while Western countries hoard most of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Cuba’s medical revolution “marches once again” says Santos optimistically.