Cuba and Iran are unable to rely on an international economy where the US is the main actor, a harsh reality that brought them together to secure a coronavirus vaccine.
Cuba and Iran's Covid-19 response has shed light on their geopolitical alliance in the face of severe sanctions imposed by the United States. Soberana 02, produced in Cuba's Finlay Institute, is entering its third clinical trial as an undertaking with Iran's Pasteur Institute, enabling both nations to develop a vaccine due for release in May. Soberana 02 plans to produce 100 million doses to ship worldwide.
Soberana 02's first trial began in 2020 with 40 volunteers and moved swiftly into Phase 2 with 100 Cubans indicating immunity within the first 14 days.
The small Caribbean island did not have enough Covid-19 cases to gather data for vaccine production nationwide. The Phase 3 trial is a global venture first confirmed in November 2020 when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with specialists from the Cuban Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, announcing their mutual solidarity in importing vaccines to Iran. 150,000 Cuban and 40,000 Iranian volunteers will test the vaccine.
Geopolitics has been critical in determining Cuba and Iran's vaccine strategy. US sanctions have crippled both countries and pharmaceutical companies are often discouraged from trading with them. Hence why Soberana, which means 'Sovereign' in Spanish, is fitting for both.
Despite the UN calling on the US and other countries worldwide to stop sanctions, crucially those impacting medical and humanitarian aid, the Trump administration introduced almost 50 new measures since the start of the pandemic.
"The US increased sanctions against Cuba in the hopes that it would, combined with the pandemic and economic crisis, really tip Cuba over the edge", a lecturer in Economic and Social History at University of Glasgow and author of We Are Cuba!: How a Revolutionary People have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, Helen Yaffe, tells TRT World.
"The Cuban economy has been, yes, hard hit by the pandemic as most other economies in the world. The difference is Cuba doesn’t have access to international finance, so it can’t get through an economic crisis with a loan from the IMF, the World Bank, the inter-American Development Bank- it has no lender of last resort”, Yaffe continues.
Iran has one of the largest cases of Covid-19 in the Middle East, with its total case number surging past 1.68 million.
"The possibility of a fourth wave, the problem with emerging variants, require that Iran responds quickly. However, Tehran faces impediments in importing foreign vaccines, leading the country to look beyond the 'West'," explains Iranian Geopolitics expert and London School of Economics Research Fellow, Dr Ghoncheh Tazmini.
"'Vaccine diplomacy' must be seen within the larger rubric of Iran's foreign policy imperatives: fostering non-European and non-Western alliance patterns, and alignments in order mitigate external (American and European) political pressure – which in the context of a humanitarian crisis, borders on coercion," Tazmini adds.
The Cuban vaccine carries several benefits
Cuba is a perfect candidate and has been an active participant in combating the global fight against Covid-19, sending over a thousand health workers to Honduras, South Africa, Togo, Mexico and Italy in 2020. The Trump administration criticised this undertaking, aiming to obstruct Cuban cooperation, accusing Cuban medical missions of "human trafficking" of which no evidence has been found.
Nonetheless, Cuba's health internationalism has been renowned by many officials from the United Nations and World Health Organisation; the case of 2014 when Cubans went to West Africa to help combat Ebola is one of countless examples. According to Yaffe, in 2017, Cuban medics were in 62 countries and 44 percent of them paid nothing. Their technology and medical innovation has attracted interest from the Global South in places such as Vietnam, Pakistan and India, and closer nations such as Venezuela and Bolivia have also been discussing agreements. Soberana 02 would also cost less than other candidates, presenting a viable solution to other Global South countries.
When the World Health Organisation approved 71 potential vaccines in April, four were Cuban, yet the Caribbean island's success in biotechnology is nothing new; it also has the highest number of doctors in the world per capita. The Cuban vaccine carries several benefits. Cuba's biotechnology sector produced the first successful Meningitis B vaccine in 1988 and was the first to eradicate mother-to-child HIV transmission.
"They have a really extensive grassroots or community-based public health care system, where the emphasis is on prevention, not cure," Yaffe tells TRT World.
"It's using a platform that's tried and tested based on other vaccines. Cuban children, through the basic National Immunisation programme, receive eight domestically produced vaccines that have been approved by the World Health Organisation that are sold overseas, so they have experience with vaccinations" Yaffe continues. In her book, she unpacks how Cuba has historically prioritised health and biotechnology.
Pharmaceutical companies and transnational investments have enabled US and UK vaccines' rapid developments, while the Cuban-Iranian initiative is founded on sovereignty and local efforts. "By cooperating with Cuba on its 'Soberana', which means 'sovereign' in Spanish, Iran is sending the message that it will not be crippled or coerced and that it will continue to pursue independence - the beating heart of Iran's national narrative," says Tazmini.
Cuba and Iran are unable to rely on an international economy where the US is the main actor. Today's vaccine geopolitics has prioritised wealthier nations, requiring those remaining to build strategic alliances and find different routes to securing a vaccine.