Cuba Jabs Vulnerable with Two Trial Vaccines

Carmen Puentes receives the first dose of the Abdala experimental vaccine against COVID-19, in a polyclinic in Habana del Este. This 70-year-old Cuban citizen will receive another two doses of the vaccine with 14 day intervals between them, as part of the country’s vaccination program. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

Cuba is the first Latin American country with its own vaccines to fight COVID-19 and hopes to add itself to the limited group of countries that will have its entire or almost all of its population vaccinated by the end of 2021.

By Luis Brizuela (IPS-Noticias)

HAVANA TIMES – “This is the best thing that has happened to us,” Victoria Diaz says after receiving the first dose of Abdala, one of the potential vaccines to fight COVID-19 which Cuba hopes to use to vaccinate its entire population this year.

Living in Habana del Este, one of the Cuban capital’s 15 municipalities, this retired 66-year-old woman told IPS that she went with her 85-year-old husband to get the vaccine because “we are sure that this vaccine won’t harm us. It’s been studied extensively.”

Diaz says that she feels OK 72 hours after the injection, and she spends her days taking care of her home where her daughter also lives with her three-month-old baby. This has forced her to be a little stricter with health protocols and “even though we’re vaccinated, we’re going to have to stick to them for a while, including wearing a mask,” she says.

On May 10th, the so-called “experimental study” in at-risk groups and regions began in four Havana municipalities, which the rest of Havana will join by the end of May and in June.

The objective is to vaccinate approximately 1.7 million adults over 19 years old in the city of 2.2 million inhabitants, which has seen over half of the island’s COVID-related deaths and infections.

The timeline of this experimental phase also contemplates vaccinating the over-60s, and the 40 to 59 year olds, in some of the other 15 Cuban provinces.

Abdala and Soberana 02, two potential COVID-19 vaccines developed by the national biopharmaceutical industry, will be administered, as they are the ones currently in the third and final stage of clinical trials.

This is a pressing decision until the regulatory body, the Center for State Control of Medicines, authorizes them for mass use, which could happen in mid-June, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

The experimental study was given the green light during a time when Cuba is seeing its darkest days with the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2.

Up until Tuesday May 18th, the Cuba had racked up 126,755 positive cases and 826 deaths, since March 2020 when the first cases were reported. Nevertheless, the death rate in terms of the entire population is still quite low if it is compared to that in neighboring countries.

Add to this the circulation of new variants, especially the South African variant, which has a higher transmission rate and is linked to a surge in serious, critical cases and deaths ever since December, experts point out.

The safety and immunization results in phases 1 and 2 of the clinical trials, and the preliminary assessment of Soberana 02 and Abdala in phase 3, are still underway, but they say “that vaccinating at this stage has a lot more benefits than risks for our population,” the minister of Public Health, Jose Angel Portal, said in a TV appearance on May 7th.

Portal also added that “the vaccination of different population groups should contribute towards a drop in the number of infections and deaths, as well as potentially reducing the transmission rate. This would allow for a gradual return to social and economic activities across the nation.”

By the end of June, it is expected that 22.6% of the island’s 11.2 million inhabitants will have received one of these vaccines.

If the regulatory body authorizes mass vaccination, a third of Cubans could be vaccinated by July and 70% by August, according to official estimates.

Statistics reveals that up until Tuesday 18th, over 455,000 people had received at least one dose of Soberana 02 and Abdala during the health intervention in Havana, which was also administered to health personnel, biotech staff and other at-risk groups.

Doctor Yaima Cid explains how the first dose of experimental vaccine Abdala against COVID-19 will be administered to a group at a polyclinic in Havana’s Alamar neighborhood. Cid explains that the most frequent reactions are pain at the site of the injection or some momentary dizziness because of high blood pressure, which is due to nerves.

According to Cuban scientists, Abdala, which is to be administered in three doses, with a 14-day interval between each (0-14-28), is able to induce high levels of functional antibodies against the virus.

“The most frequent reactions we’ve seen have been mild, such as pain at the site of the injection and dizziness due to high blood pressure, as some patients get very nervous, but nothing serious,” doctor Yaima Cid, head of one of the working units at a polyclinic in Habana del Este, told IPS.

The protocol for administering the vaccine is based on willingness, and every individual has to fill out a form with their personal information and sign a consent form.

Before the injection, health personnel take your blood pressure and temperature, and after the injection, every person stays under observation for an hour to assess whether there are any secondary effects, IPS confirmed when visiting one of these vaccination centers.

“After the third dose, the immune system will need an additional time period to respond to the disease with antibodies. If you do become infected, you won’t have a long list of complications and it won’t leave long-term effects, it’ll just be like getting the flu,” Cid explained.

Abdala, Soberana 02 and another three potential COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being developed in Cuba, are based on protein subunit technology, which include harmless pieces (a part of the S protein) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, so that the body can recognize it as an alien body and produce T-lymphocytes and antibodies to attack the virus.

Health personnel help a patient to fill out a form with their personal information before receiving the COVID-19 injection, which is administered voluntarily in Cuba and requires a signature of consent beforehand. A process that everyone who has received the first dose of the vaccine in Havana has gone through.

Perspectives

Cuba is the first Latin American country with its own vaccines to fight COVID-19 and hopes to add itself to the limited group of countries that will have all or almost all of its population vaccinated by the end of 2021.

This will have social, political and economic connotations, as it unfolds in a developing country, with a structural economic crisis that has only been made worse by the effects of the pandemic. On top of that are the restrictions imposed by a tougher embargo, which the US government established on the island ever since 1962.

Read more from Cuba here.


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