Challenges of Developing a COVID-19 Vaccine in Cuba

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

HAVANA TIMES – This news has recently made frequent headlines in Cuban media, giving great importance to the Russian vaccine called Sputnik V. It has had the greatest and most positive coverage, along with the potential Cuban vaccine “Soberana”, which was certified a few days ago, to go into the experimental trial phase with humans.

This would be fine if it wasn’t a matter of partial, biased information. “Coincidentally”, practically nothing has been said about other vaccines that are being developed by other countries – China’s if anything – even though some of these are a lot more advanced than Russia’s. If any mention is made, then it is to detract from their importance, by writing or mentioning it right at the end, as if it were some lesser detail.

Launching such a chauvinistic campaign doesn’t help this allied country’s vaccine to come out any faster, because the rest of the world and drug regulatory bodies are well-informed and prepared. But it does do a great deal of damage to the Cuban people, because it misinforms and creates false hope about what is really happening.

It’s great that the Russians are doing so well with their trials. It’s perfect! It’s also great that Cuba might be able to produce a vaccine if it’s finally viable. It would be incredible and a great relief for Cubans, because I’m sure it would be a lot more affordable and ensure Cubans’ access to a quicker cure. That’s not the discussion here.

But what interest is there in denying, the Cuban people especially, advances of other vaccines or casting these to the sideline, such as Moderna’s in the US, Germany’s or the UK’s trial vaccines?

Two months ago, when the World Health Organization (WHO) was following the development of 140 vaccine projects worldwide, the famous Russian one today wasn’t registered by this organization even amongst the top 10 of the over 200 in the study. Nobody can explain why, but maybe it was because this was kept on the hush for some reason. Yet today, it is being reported as one of the top 6, of the 149 being followed.  

It seems that the most advanced continue to be the US vaccine by Moderna pharmaceutical company and Oxford University/AstraZemeca’s in the UK. They are followed by two Chinese vaccines which continue to be advancing, with great results too: one developed by the CanSino Biologics company and the other by Sinopharm/Sinovac Biotech China companies. These are followed by a German vaccine, being trialled by CureVac. Then, finally, it’s the Russian vaccine being developed by Moscow’s Sechenovsky University.

Made in Cuba

When “Sputnik V” is mentioned in the Cuban press, it is acclaimed more than in Russia’s own state, where national pride could justify it. Such effusiveness and an excess of triumphalism with this vaccine (which hasn’t been proven to guarantee success yet, just like any other), is undoubtedly the result of our country’s anti-Western policy, with a greater emphasis on anti-US dogma. It would be stupid to say it´s anti-capitalist, as China and Russia are also capitalist powers.

Efforts worldwide to develop a COVID-19 vaccine began immediately after the first cases of the viral disease were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in December last year. Experts agree that a vaccine could provide lasting protecting for humans, which would enable lockdown measures to be lifted more quickly and safely.

The race to find this magic cure is full of obstacles, though, and one wrong move could have catastrophic consequences, like violating established protocols, which ensure that it is as safe as it can be for the general population.

After a laboratory manages to design a vaccine, it must undergo a long and rigorous process until it can be proven to be both safe and effective. There are at least three phases to a clinical trial, after phase zero (0), or preclinical, which includes in vitro and animal testing. The three clinical phases are:

  1. 20 to 100 volunteers. (This focuses on confirming that the vaccine doesn’t present a threat to human health).
  2. Up to several hundred people. (People’s immune response are assessed, as are short-term side effects).
  3. Several thousand volunteers take part in this phase. (Efficacy and safety results are reinforced and statistics are compared to the non-vaccinated population).

Vaccines sometimes enter a fourth phase, where the same phase 3 tests are carried out, to make sure they work. It’s common for these studies to last several years, even over a decade, and once they are finalized and certified, it normally takes up to a year and a half for them to begin to be used.

However, during this pandemic, researchers have said that they could have their vaccines ready in just 12-18 months. Which sounds wonderful and hopeful, but it is no guarantee of their success, just like the excessive media propaganda in favor of one on the other in Cuba, isn’t either.

It’s worth highlighting, for the sake of caution, that the historic rate of “failed attempts” of experimental vaccines, between the preclinical and clinical phase, stands at 93% (according to Jerome Kim, director of the International Vaccine Institute, quoted from BBC News). Let’s just hope that luck and speed accompany us with this vaccine against the new coronavirus, to stop this pandemic.

Related post: When a Vaccine Comes or Appears in Cuba


Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.

2 thoughts on “Challenges of Developing a COVID-19 Vaccine in Cuba

  • When has the Cuban government said anything without bias their news is state controlled and based on disinformation.

  • Remember the scramble for PPE for front-line workers to be protected from the Covid 19 vaccine? Well think about the supply of syringes and vials necessary to vaccinate billions of people – that will necessitate a global supply chain of the raw ingredients.
    Governments have supposedly ordered over 4 billion doses of unproven vaccines, some of which may following tests, prove to be either ineffective or requiring a second dose. A typical vaccine even if reaching final trials has a 20% chance of failing. Pharma labs do not have manufacturing facilities to enable production of billions of doses. Where do such facilities exist, for current ones are kept busy with existing drug requirements?
    There is a unseemly nationalistic scramble by governments to claim that they or rather pharmaceutical companies within their country, actually have an effective vaccine. But, if and when they have such a vaccine, can one imagine that they will supply others prior to ensuring sufficient for their own population? Would the US, China or Russia or others, do so?
    Politicians like to posture, and vaccines for Covid provide a cause – whether it be Donald Trump or Miguel Diaz-Canel. For them , hope springs eternal – even if based on little reason.

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