By Patricia Grogg (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Cuba’s health system and scientific breakthroughs in this field are facing the challenge and opportunity of proving their ability to respond to a pandemic such as Coronavirus, which has severely affected even highly-developed countries.
“In my opinion, Cuba has a very positive track record of tackling serious epidemiological situations, unlike many countries, as well as an infrastructure that has been trained in its response, and I’m sure that it will help Cuba to keep the pandemic under control,” Cuban doctor and scientist Valia Rodriguez, now living in the UK, told IPS.
She also believes that the Cuban health system’s framework within a socialist country enables it to make faster decisions that are reconciled with the population’s best interests, as well as allocating the resources needed for this without delay.
“The latter is a lot more complicated and slower in other countries, but it’s very important in order to ensure success,” she said.
The history of Cuba’s biotech industry began in the ‘80s, when six scientists harnessed the technology needed to produce interferons (proteins produced by cells as part of the human immune system) in record time, to treat viral diseases and different kinds of cancer.
This led to greater technological advances on a larger scale, using genetic engineering techniques and modern biotechnology to produce interferons for the first time ever. A mixed Chinese-Cuban company has been producing Recombinant Interferon Alfa 2B at its facilities in the Chinese province of Jilin, since 2007.
Under the commercial name “Heberon Alfa R”, this product is one of the thirty medicines that has been prescribed in this country to help fight COVID-19, the illness created by Coronavirus.
This antiviral drug has been administered to vulnerable people in China as a preventative measure, and also to patients receiving treatment, Marta Ayala, the vice-director of the Genetic Engineering and Biotech Center (CIGB), explained during a press conference on March 13th.
The drug is also manufactured in Cuba and is one of the 22 drugs included within the protocol outlined by its public health system to tackle the epidemic. A government plan to Prevent and Control the disease also includes measures to mitigate the spreading of COVID-19 and to assure the health system doesn’t collapse in the face of a massive outbreak.
Eduardo Martinez Diaz, director of the BioCubaFarma Business Group, announced during the press conference that in spite of “economic limitations and the blockade” resources, raw materials and spare parts are being arranged so as to ensure the manufacture of necessary drugs to tackle the pandemic.
Up until now, there is no vaccine or specific antiviral drug to prevent or treat COVID-19. Cuba has put a vaccine project on its agenda, which it is developing alongside Chinese health authorities.
According to Luis Herrera, a scientific advisor and salesperson at BioCubaFarma, it would be a drug that is administered as a nasal-spray so as to facilitate the body’s response and coming into direct contact with mucous membranes to treat Coronavirus.
In the meantime, Gerardo Guillen, director of Biomedical Research at CIGB, has said that the vaccine that Cuban scientists are working on is based on nasal-spray flu vaccines that have been developed by the CIGB to treat particles that are similar to this virus.
Direct communication with China on this project could lead to satisfactory results, he stated.
Herrera told IPS that with the technology available right now, a vaccine could be approved by regulatory bodies within six to eight months.
BioCubaFarma is a Cuban state-led business group which was founded in 2012 to manufacture medicines, equipment and high-tech services dedicated to improving the Cuban people’s health and creating goods and services for export, as a result of the technological and scientific advances Cuba has made.
The appearance of this entity, which is made up of some 38 companies, is believed to be the maturity of a biotech industry which employs over 22,000 workers, exports to over 50 countries and holds 1800 patents for drugs outside of Cuba.
Its catalog includes products such as Heberprot-P for treating diabetic foot, the therapeutic vaccine CIMAvax-EFG C which increases life expectancy for people suffering from lung cancer and VA-MENGOC-BC, the only effective vaccine in the world that attacks Meningitis B and C.
Cuba before the pandemic
Citizens have concerns about the current situation in the country, where problems will get a lot worse if they don’t manage to keep the epidemic from spreading.
“Coronavirus has come to Cuba during tough economic times, where limitations in its external trade are particularly marked. The country’s main sources of revenue haven’t been able to recover and have declined, such as tourism and exports,” economist and researcher Betsy Anaya told IPS.
“This has been reflected in shortages of basic everyday items. If the pandemic does spread, the consequences will be grave, paralyzing an economy that can’t get off the ground like it needs to,” the expert added, who also indicated risk factors, including water shortages and personal hygiene items.
Measures adopted up until now haven’t included closing the border, although strict epidemiological surveillance is being carried out in airports, port terminals and marinas, where high-tech temperature scanners detect possible alterations in travelers.
If anybody enters the country with a fever, breathing difficulty, a cough and a runny nose, they are put in quarantine for 14 days, which is believed to be the disease’s maximum incubation period. Nevertheless, there are many critical comments on social media about the country being left open to foreign visitors.
Within this context, the Cuban government gave authorization to British cruise ship MS Braemar, operated by Fred Olsen Cruise Line, to dock in the country “with a small number of travelers infected with the new Coronavirus (SARS CoV 2/COVID-19)” and then helped to repatriate them on charter flights.
“These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation efforts to tackle our shared challenges, values which are inherent to the humanist practice of the Revolution and our people,” the government announced in a statement it issued on Monday 16th.
According to local media reports, the cruise ship had been sailing through the Caribbean since late February, with over 1000 people onboard and it has five confirmed cases of Coronavirus, as well as 22 passengers and 21 crew members – including a doctor – who have been put into quarantine because they have flu-like symptoms. [They left Cuba for London on March 19th.]
COVID-19 has already been reported in 172 countries, with over 253,000 confirmed cases and 10,524 deaths, with a death rate of 3.94% according to data published by the World Health Organization on Tuesday 17th. In Cuba, the number of people infected went up to sixteen on Thursday.
“Coronavirus has become a pandemic that is hitting most of the world. It is highly contagious, and even though the death rate is low, it can prove deadly and the speed at which it spreads places the world’s health systems under great stress to the point of collapse,” economist Anaya noted. She believes this is a reality that Cuba won’t escape.