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Progressive International's general coordinator David Adler (L) and Dr. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director general of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines, talk during a press conference at the Finlay Institute on Havana, on January 24, 2022.

Progressive International's general coordinator David Adler (L) and Dr. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director general of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines, talk during a press conference at the Finlay Institute in Havana, on January 24, 2022. (Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

 

'Historic Turning Point': Cuba Issues Plan for Vaccine Internationalism

"This lifesaving package," said the head of Progressive International's delegation to Cuba, exemplifies public health and science being "placed above private profit and petty nationalism."

Kenny Stancil

At a Tuesday press conference convened by Progressive International, individuals from Cuba's medical community explained their plan to deliver 200 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income nations in the Global South—along with technology to enable domestic production and expert support to improve distribution.

"Cuba's achievement in creating effective vaccines is immense, and if we can use this know-how to build a better system, not driven by the greed of the few, it will be truly world-changing."

"Today's announcements by Cuban scientists should mark a historic turning point in the history of the Covid-19 pandemic," David Adler, general coordinator of the Progressive International (PI) and head of its delegation to Cuba, said in a statement. "This lifesaving package sets the standard for vaccine internationalism."

Despite the added challenges imposed by a six-decade-long U.S. embargo—including syringe shortages and blocked solidarity donations—Cuba's public biotech sector has developed two highly effective Covid-19 vaccines and its universal healthcare system has fully inoculated over 86% of its population.

Representatives of the Cuban government said Tuesday that the Caribbean island has obtained enough funding from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to manufacture 200 million doses. According to Dr. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director general of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines, "They could produce 120 million doses in one year alone."

Not content to simply export its homegrown jabs, Cuba plans to take the following additional steps to ensure that these doses—and possibly millions more—make their way into the arms of people living in impoverished nations forsaken by Big Pharma and wealthy governments:

  • Solidarity prices for Covid-19 vaccines for low-income countries;
  • Technology transfer where possible for production in low-income countries; and
  • Extending medical brigades to build medical capacity and training for vaccine distribution in partner countries.

That's according to key members of Cuba's health and technology sectors, including Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, director of science and innovation at BioCubaFarma; Olga Lidia Jacobo-Casanueva, director of the Center for State Control of Medicines and Medical Devices (CECMED); and Ileana Morales Suárez, director of science and technology innovation at Cuba's Ministry of Public Health and coordinator of the nation's Covid-19 vaccination plan.

Those officials answered questions posed by journalists, vaccine manufacturers, public health experts, and foreign diplomats during Tuesday's briefing.

The panel was organized by PI in response to the rapid spread of Omicron amid persistent global vaccine apartheid—a combination that World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last week makes the emergence of new variants "likely."

Nearly 10 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally to date. While more than 70% of people in high-income nations have been fully inoculated, less than 10% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot.

Unequal access to lifesaving jabs is the result of dose hoarding by wealthy governments—which have gobbled up most of the world's supply, occasionally wasting excess shots while flaunting their insufficient donations that are sometimes unusable when delivered just before expiration—and knowledge hoarding by pharmaceutical corporations, whose refusal to share publicly funded vaccine recipes has generated artificial scarcity.

By contrast, Cuba has quickly transitioned from protecting its own population to negotiating tech-transfer deals with numerous countries, including Argentina, Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.

With a recent analysis estimating that more than 20 billion additional Covid-19 vaccine doses are required to end the pandemic, worldwide vaccine manufacturing must be ramped up significantly.

While Cuba may be incapable of satisfying global need by itself, its willingness to share technology and know-how can provide a "pathway to a new international health order, where public health and science are placed above private profit and petty nationalism," said Adler.

According to PI, "Cuba is in conversations with more than 15 countries regarding production" on their own soil. The state-run biotechnology organization, BioCubaFarma, is also working with the WHO to obtain a prequalification status for its protein-based vaccines, which are relatively easy to produce at scale and simple to store because they do not require freezing temperatures.

Pérez Rodríguez said Tuesday that "Cuba is open to any proposal that implies a greater impact of our vaccines in the world."

"As wealthy countries continue to block proposals that would make vaccines available to all, Cuba has emerged as a ray of hope," said Helen Yaffe, a lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow.

Health justice advocates continue to push for a temporary suspension of deadly intellectual property barriers at the World Trade Organization—a widely supported move that would enable qualified manufacturers to produce generic Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests—but the United Kingdom, Germany, and a few other opponents have sided with powerful drugmakers by stonewalling the measure.

In lobbying to maintain its extremely profitable IP monopolies, Big Pharma claims that waiving patents won't lead to an increase in the global supply of lifesaving medical tools because generic drug manufacturers in the Global South lack the capacity to replicate complex production processes.

Last month, however, experts identified 120 firms in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that stand ready to make billions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines if Pfizer and Moderna were compelled by German and U.S. policymakers to share formulas and technology.

"We could have put people's lives ahead of corporate profits and vaccinated the world, but we decided to hand over key decisions to western pharmaceutical corporations," Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said Tuesday. "We so desperately need a new model, and our hope now lies with those countries which have been ignored and marginalized in this pandemic but nonetheless stepped up, and took matters in their own hands."

In addition to pursuing tech-transfer where possible to boost global vaccine production, PI noted, "Cuba plans to send its Henry Reeve Brigades to countries in need of support with vaccine distribution, both for immediate deployment and longer term training of personnel."

PI explained:

Disparities in the ability to distribute vaccines are hindering governments' abilities to ensure a speedy rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in many low-income countries. According to the international humanitarian organization CARE, the cost for vaccine rollouts in developing countries has been vastly under-calculated by international donors leading to many donated doses lying around waiting to get into arms. Kate O'Brien, the WHO's vaccine director, reportedly said that funding for distribution "is absolutely an issue that we're experiencing and hearing about from countries."

[...]

The offer of technical assistance holds great promise for developing countries as many have shifted focus to building robust domestic biotech industries. At the Progressive International Summit, Anyang' Nyong'o, governor of Kenya's Kisumu County, invited Cuba "to come to Kenya to share technology and expand production of the vaccine candidates you are developing."

"Cuba's achievement in creating effective vaccines is immense," said Dearden, "and if we can use this know-how to build a better system, not driven by the greed of the few, it will be truly world-changing."

Zackie Achmat, co-founder of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign, argued Monday in an opinion piece published by Al Jazeera that "there can be no illusions about the path ahead."

"The U.S. embargo will limit Cuba's ability to access credit and collaborate with suppliers, decreasing its capacity to produce and export at scale," wrote Achmat. "Cuba must move quickly to not only share its vaccine but its message and model of internationalism."

"Whatever reservations we may have about Cuba's political system, its commitment to global health equity is unmatched," he added. "If we follow its lead, it could herald an end to the reign of pharmaceutical monopolies enforced by rich countries. A new international health order is within reach."


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