News Analysis

Cuba Sets Example in Confronting Pandemic (II)

Defying the Odds, Cuban Vaccines Are Feat of Socialist Revolution


This is the second part of a two-part series. Part 1 can be found here.

By Francisco Picado and Argiris Malapanis

July 1, 2021—Despite the backbreaking obstacles stemming from Washington’s economic war, Cuba has achieved a stunning scientific accomplishment by rapidly developing five vaccines against the SARS-COV2 virus. This is the direct result of an initiative the central leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, promoted in the 1980s to prioritize government investment in developing a domestic biotechnology industry.

Technician Mayellín Mejías works at the Vaccine Aseptic and Packaging Processing Plant at the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana. The Cuban Revolution’s priority in developing a robust biotechnology industry has paid off big time during current pandemic. (Photo: Yamil Lage / AFP)

An article in the March 29 Washington Post, titled “Against the odds, Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse,” admitted that the island nation was on the cusp of a “singular breakthrough: Becoming the world’s smallest country to develop not just one, but multiple coronavirus vaccines.”  If proven successful, these vaccines would represent “an against-the-odds feat of medical prowess,” the Post said.

The U.S. daily paraphrased Jarbas Barbosa, the assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, saying that in developing such vaccines Cuba’s researchers had to overcome “even more hurdles than their peers in Western labs,” including shortages of equipment, spare parts, and other supplies, due to the U.S. sanctions.

The Cuban vaccines have rapidly distinguished themselves in the world of medicine as well. Out of some 200 anti-Covid vaccines being developed worldwide, 23 candidates had advanced to phase-three clinical trials as of March of this year. Two of the 23 are Cuban: Soberana 2 (meaning sovereign) and Abdala (named after a poem by Cuba’s national hero José Martí). No other country in Latin America has developed its own vaccines so far.

The other three Cuban vaccines are in earlier stages of clinical trials. These are the Soberana 1, Soberana Plus, and an intranasal, needle-free vaccine called Mambisa (named after the Cuban term for 19th century fighters—most of them slaves and freed men and women of African, Chinese, and Spanish origins—who were the backbone of the liberation army that led the national independence struggle against Spain).

At the end of June, Cuba announced that its Abdala vaccine is 92% effective in a three-dose vaccination scheme. Earlier, Cuba had announced its Soberana 2 vaccine was found to be 62% effective with only two of its three doses. These results set the stage for enabling Cuba to meet its goal of vaccinating its entire population by the end of this year.

Vaccines for the poor

The Cuban government has also announced it will waive “intellectual property” rights, which means that the developing world will finally have access to effective, affordable, anti-Covid vaccines. To meet its international commitments, Havana is planning to produce 100 million doses of such vaccines, three times more than the supply needed to complete domestic inoculation.

In addition, unlike most vaccines produced in other countries, Cuban immunogens do not need expensive special refrigeration, as the U.S.-made Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require. Instead, they are affordable serums that can last for weeks at room temperature, and even longer at 46 degrees Fahrenheit or lower temperatures—making them ideal for developing countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

These vaccines offer hope to billions of people in the semicolonial world who have had virtually no expectation of getting around the vaccine monopoly of the wealthier nations like the United States and countries in western Europe.

Under capitalism, medical care and the pharmaceutical industries are cut-throat big businesses. Their main goal is to maximize profits for their owners and investors. This translates into Covid-19 vaccine production and distribution today that is way short of what’s necessary worldwide to check the pandemic, stop it in its tracks, and reverse its devastating impact on humanity. The drive to boost the profits of the billionaires in this case is short-sighted, at best, but it follows the inexorable logic of capitalism’s blind economic laws.

According to Johns Hopkins University data, 11 billion vaccine doses are needed worldwide to reach a 70% vaccination rate around the globe, but only 2.2 billion have been administered so far.

Biden announced June 11 that the so-called G7 group of the world’s wealthiest countries would be donating 1 billion vaccine doses. “We need more,” responded UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He warned that if people in developing countries were not inoculated quickly, the virus could mutate further and become resistant to the new medications.

Biden had even pushed for sending to European Union (EU) countries tens of millions of doses of the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine. But in early June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) informed the company that 60 million doses of its single dose shot produced in a Baltimore plant must be thrown out due to possible contamination. At the same time, the FDA cleared 10 million doses of the J&J vaccine made in the same factory to be released for domestic use or export. The FDA also went out of its way to offer a helping hand to the offending company by extending the shelf-life of the J&J serum from three to 4.5 months, since the expected sharp drop of confidence in this vaccine could cause hundreds of thousands of doses to expire.

The EU response to accepting 100 million doses of the J&J vaccine? “Thanks, but no, thanks.”

‘We share what we have, not what we have to spare’

On top of developing effective and affordable vaccines and waiving patents to make them available to semicolonial countries, the working-class internationalism of socialist Cuba has raised its own bar even higher.

Cuban doctor provides medical care to Ebola patient in Conakry, the capital of the West African country of Guinea. Cuban medical personnel were in the forefront of the battle against the Ebola outbreak. Cuba has sent medical brigades to every corner of the world for more than 60 years. During the Covid-19 pandemic alone, Cuba dispatched 57 contingents of the Henry Reeve Medical Brigade to 40 countries. (Photo: Cuban newspaper Hoy archives)

Responding to calls for help from around the globe, Cuba has dispatched within one year 57 brigades of medical specialists from its Henry Reeve International Contingent, treating 1.26 million Covid-19 patients in 40 countries—including much wealthier nations like Italy in the early stages of the pandemic. The brigades joined another 28,000 Cuban healthcare professionals already serving in 66 countries. 

“Our record on this front has no equal in the world and is congruent with the moral principles on which Cuban society is built,” Raúl Castro told delegates to the recent congress of Cuba’s Communist Party. “It rests on the notion that we share what we have, not what we have to spare,” Castro explained.

His statement stood in stark contrast to the attitudes of liberal and conservative politicians and other spokespeople of the imperialist world.

From the early days of the Cuban Revolution, starting in 1959, the workers and farmers government has responded to every crisis with urgency and calm, telling the truth to the Cuban people and mobilizing them to act in their own interests to defend their accomplishments from the many dangers threatening them. Havana’s response to the current spike in infections and further spread of the virus in the island is another example of this pattern.

Cuban authorities have organized a nationwide campaign to fight Covid-19 by calling on the population, mass organizations, and government entities at every level to enact more strict temporary sanitation protocols to contain the current outbreak. They have simultaneously launched a “health intervention,” stepping up the distribution of the Soberana 2 and Abdala immunogens, in what has been characterized by Cuban medical professionals as one of the most complex health campaigns ever organized by the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP).

Havana, the city most affected by the outbreak nationwide, implemented the new measures on June 11. Restrictions prohibit transit of state vehicles past 9 p.m. All work-related travel in and out of Cuba’s capital and travel outside the city require permits. Public transportation has enacted strict limits. Working remotely when and where possible is strongly encouraged. All municipalities are organizing to maintain social distancing at stores and restaurants and to arrange for food delivery. Bars, discos, beaches, pools, and other recreation centers are closed along with spectator sports venues.

All health and sanitation measures are being implemented daily with the help of mass organizations. These include the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Cuban Federation of Women, the Federation of Cuban Workers, and the National Assembly of People’s Power.

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel said it was urgent to bring the outbreak under control quickly. “We need a door-to-door movement,” he stated.

Such health intervention is popular, according to news reports. “Of course I will get the vaccine. I do it for my kids, for my family, for my companion, and for my country,” said Ivon Riera Almenarez during an interview on the TV program Mesa Redonda, while waiting in the observation room at the Polyclinic Ramón López Peña.

“Our province [of Havana] is one of the most affected,” said Carmen Sánchez García during the same interview, and “we still have people that have not taken to heart the importance of this vaccination campaign.”

Mass mobilizations start tipping the scales

But the weight of the mass mobilizations is already tipping the scales in some areas.

Dr. Yanaika Moreira Marichal oversees the Primary Work Unit at the Lidia y Clodomira Educational Polyclinic. Moreira told Radio Rebelde on May 12 that the vaccination and observation centers needed to administer the Abdala vaccine as part of the health intervention were to remain open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The centers need a multi-level deployment of “mass organizations, local companies, municipal institutions, the [Cuban Communist] Party and the local government. We were trying to vaccinate 100 people a day” in this center, she said.

Another report indicated that cultural workers have also heeded the call to mobilize for the campaign. They are providing live performances and reading materials at the observation centers.

Cuban signer performs in front of fellow Cubans who just got vaccinated at Polyclinic No.1 in Old Havana. Everyone who gets a shot spends one hour in such observation rooms, where healthcare professionals monitor their temperature and blood pressure before they can go on with the rest of their day. Cultural workers provide live entertainment and reading materials in these observation centers. [Photo: Screen capture from video by Cuban TV program Mesa Redonda (Round Table)].

Moreira confessed she had never seen a mobilization of resources and people on such a scale before. In two short weeks, the entire population that needed to be included in the health intervention campaign in the Havana municipalities of Regla, East Havana, Guanabacoa, and San Miguel del Padrón were accounted for, she said. All individual information was digitized and coordinated with every school in the area.

“This made it possible to divide the population into age groups: older than 60, 40 to 59 years old, and those 19 to 39,” she pointed out. “Then the leaders of the community, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, the delegates from the electoral district, and the Popular Council presidents, helped us create an appointment model specifying the date and time for everyone to be at the vaccination center, which makes it possible to avoid crowds and maintain social distancing.”

This clinic was aiming to vaccinate 34,000 people (all three doses) by the end of June. Health authorities have set a goal of vaccinating nearly the entire population of Havana province this summer. This approach has begun to pay off, as the number of coronavirus cases are now declining. Between May 14 and June 18, new infections in Havana plunged from a daily average of 780 to 362.

But in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, the rate of active cases continued to climb as of mid June. To “shake up” the discussion about the battle against the virus, the country’s President Días-Canel visited Santiago accompanied by Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. They met with the local authorities after they conducted their own investigation.

The inquiry revealed lax enforcement of established protocols. It pointed to violations of the health plan at local medical institutions, the airport, in public transit, and in state and private entities as the primary reason for the outbreak.

Public health minister José Ángel Portal Miranda revealed that the most contagious Covid variants have been detected in Santiago. He reported a contamination rate of 224 cases per 100,000 people with a mortality rate of just over 1%, which is higher than the country’s average. Portal said the vaccination campaign is going well in Santiago with over half the population having already received the first shot of the vaccine. But he warned that virus transmission would persist if compliance with the established sanitation protocols is not strictly adhered to.

‘There must first be a revolution’

The daily report on June 24 of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) recorded more than 5 million vaccine doses administered as of that date. The report listed 12 deceased that day, compared to a total 1,270 Covid-related deaths in the country by the end of June. Cuba has had the highest rate of patient recovery from Covid-19 infection in the Americas, 94.2% last year. The rate stood at 93.1% this year, despite the recent outbreak.

MINSAP plans to have enough vaccines to inoculate some 60% of Cuba’s population by the end of August and to vaccinate the country’s entire population before year’s end.

The achievements of the healthcare system in Cuba are often described as remarkable. But ongoing accomplishments are not primarily the result of having good scientists, an enviable biotechnology industry, or a great health care system focused on preventive medicine—although all three of these factors are a reality.

Cuba can accomplish such admirable feats because workers and farmers took political power out of the hands of the industrialists, financiers, and landlords and handed the reins of society to working people. The July 26 Movement, with Fidel Castro at its head, led the overthrow of a brutal, U.S.-backed dictatorship at the end of 1958. Faced with a subsequent, U.S.-led, mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs and growing military and economic aggression from Washington, the revolutionary government mobilized the Cuban people to nationalize the means of production—factories, banks, services, land—establishing the first socialist revolution in the Americas by 1962.

After the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in 1959, there was a mass exodus of health professionals and about half of the country’s 6,000 doctors left Cuba. In response the revolutionary government built new medical schools and educated tens of thousands of young people to become doctors. As of 2019, an astounding 97,000 doctors worked in Cuba, and another 50,000 abroad.

The revolution instituted free and universal access to medical care for each and every Cuban—a system much superior to “Medicare for all” many socialists advocate in the United States today.

In 1959 there were only 94 hospitals throughout the island. The revolution brought up that number to 270 hospitals by 2000. Today Cuba has reduced that number to 152 but increased the number of polyclinics from 140 in 1958 to 498 in 2019.

These changes were among the measures that radically improved the country’s life expectancy from 55 years before the revolution to 78 years today—on par with the United States and other wealthy capitalist countries. Cuba’s infant mortality rate was slashed from 60 to less than 5 deaths per every 1,000 live births—a rate lower than the U.S. average, and drastically lower than the current rates among Black, Latino, and other working-class communities in the United States.

Ernesto Che Guevara was an Argentinian-born medical doctor and a Marxist who joined Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement and became a central leader of the Cuban Revolution. Guevara also helped lead guerrilla campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia, joining local armed forces resisting dictatorial regimes.

On August 19, 1960, Guevara gave a speech to Cuban youth “On Revolutionary Medicine.” That talk got to the heart of why the Cuban Revolution has such a record of impressive accomplishments.

“I realized a fundamental thing: For one to be a revolutionary doctor, or to be a revolutionary at all, there must first be a revolution,” Che Guevara stated. “Isolated individual endeavor, for all its purity of ideals, is of no use, and the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals serves no purpose if one works alone, solitarily, in some corner of America, fighting against adverse governments and social conditions that prevent progress. To create a revolution, one must have what there is in Cuba—the mobilization of a whole people, who learn by the use of arms and the exercise of militant unity to understand the value of arms and the value of unity.”

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (center), a leader of the Cuban Revolution, visits in December 1964 the Cuban Medial Brigade that had arrived in Algiers the previous year. “For one to be a revolutionary doctor, or to be a revolutionary at all, there must first be a revolution,” Guevara pointed out during his August 1960 famous speech “On Revolutionary Medicine.” (Photo: Cuban daily Granma archives)

Those of us living in the the USA today—in the belly of the beast—can maximize the chances that the Cuban people can once again defy the odds. We can join campaigns in this country to demand the normalization of relations with Cuba and the immediate lifting of the recent U.S sanctions, the long-term economic embargo, and all restrictions of travel to our neighboring country. Participating in the current car caravans against the U.S. blockade and contributing to the Syringes for Cuba campaign[1] will go a long way toward meeting this goal.


ENDNOTES

[1] For more details, and information on the international campaign to help Cuba obtain the 20 million syringes it lacks to inoculate its entire population against the Covid-19 virus by the end of this year see Savings Lives Campaign Sends 4-million Syringes to Cuba, published June 29, 2021, on World-Outlook.com.

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