The Cuban government announced advanced plans to supply 200 million doses of domestically produced Covid-19 vaccine to the Global South, which the head of the Progressive International delegation in the Caribbean country described as a “lifesaver”.
by Progressive International
The pledges were made by key figures in Cuba’s health and technology sectors at a press conference organised today (Tuesday 25 January) by Progressive International.
Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, Director of Science and Innovation at BioCubaFarma; Olga Lidia Jacobo-Casanueva, Director of the Centre for State Control of Medicines and Medical Devices (CECMED); Ileana Morales Suárez, Director of Scientific and Technological Innovation, Ministry of Public Health, Cuba, Coordinator of the national vaccination plan against Covid-19, addressed and took questions from journalists, vaccine manufacturers, public health experts and political representatives from other countries.
Despite the US embargo, Cuba has sufficient funding, including from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, to produce the 200 million doses. Yesterday (Monday 24 January), at a press conference in Havana, Dr Vicente Vérez Bencomo, Director General of the Finley Vaccine Institute, said that “120 million doses could be produced in a single year”.
At the press conference, the Cuban government announced its plan to get these doses into the arms of those in need in the Global South, including:
Solidarity pricing for Covid-19 vaccines for low-income countries;
Technology transfer where possible for production in low-income countries;
Expansion of medical brigades to build medical capacity and training for vaccine delivery in partner countries.
The press conference was organised by Progressive International in response to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) called a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases sweeping the world in early 2022, a record number since the pandemic began in 2020, amid a situation that WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Gheybreysus called “vaccine apartheid”. The impact of Covid-19 has been violently uneven: 80% of adults in the EU are fully vaccinated, but only 9.5% of people in low-income countries have received a single dose of the vaccine.
Solidarity pricing for Covid-19 vaccines for low-income countries:
Cuba has already vaccinated its own population, and more than 90% have received at least one dose of the domestically produced vaccine.
Price inequities have plagued the Covid-19 vaccine landscape. World Health Organisation (WHO) data analysed by The Independent shows that governments in lower-income countries are paying an average price of $6.88 (£5.12) per dose of Covid vaccine. Before the pandemic, developing countries paid an average price of $0.80 per dose for non-covid vaccines, according to WHO figures. South Africa has been forced to buy doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at 2.5 times the price paid by most European countries. Bangladesh and Uganda have also paid more than the EU for the vaccine.
COVAX, the global vaccine procurement initiative aimed at ensuring a subsidised supply of vaccines to the poorest countries, has repeatedly fallen short of its targets and, in September 2021, announced a 25% reduction in its planned vaccine supply by 2021.
Cuba has sent donations to countries that have requested assistance with Covid-19 vaccines, including most recently to Syria and St Vincent and the Grenadines. In addition, it has exported doses and negotiated technology transfer agreements with other countries, including Argentina, Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam and Nicaragua.
Technology transfer where possible for production in low-income countries:
Cuba is in discussions with more than 15 countries about production in their countries.
Cuba’s vaccines use a protein subunit technology platform, based on protein antigens, which facilitates their production at scale and storage, as they do not require freezing temperatures.
Cuba’s offer is likely to find many interested buyers, many of whom have been turned down by large pharmaceutical companies. John Fulton, spokesman for Canadian manufacturer Biolyse, said: “I am interested in this presentation because Cuba presents a unique model of vaccine internationalism. I look forward to hearing what opportunities may exist in relation to technology transfer for the production of Covid-19 vaccines for lower-income nations. Biolyse has attempted to apply for a compulsory licence through Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, specifically for the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine.
Last month, experts identified more than 100 companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America with the potential to produce mRNA vaccines, urging the US and German governments to force their pharmaceutical companies to share the technology. However, no progress has been made and, earlier this year, the World Health Organisation lamented that “the lack of sharing of licences, technology and know-how by pharmaceutical companies meant that manufacturing capacity was being wasted”.
BioCubaFarma, Cuba’s state-owned biotechnology organisation, has been in close contact with WHO representatives to obtain prequalification status for its Covid-19 vaccines, which it hopes to do in 2022. A full dossier of data is expected to be submitted to the WHO in early February. In addition, Cuba plans to work with the national regulatory agencies of all countries interested in acquiring Cuban vaccines.
Expansion of medical brigades to build medical capacity and training for vaccine distribution in partner countries:
Cuba plans to send its Henry Reeve Brigades to countries in need of vaccine delivery support, both for immediate deployment and long-term staff training.
Disparities in vaccine delivery capacity are hampering governments’ ability to ensure rapid deployment of Covid-19 vaccines in many low-income countries. According to the international humanitarian organisation CARE, the cost of delivering vaccines to developing countries has been vastly underestimated by international donors, resulting in many donated doses waiting to reach arms. Kate O’Brien, WHO’s director of vaccines, said that funding for distribution “is absolutely a problem that we are experiencing and hearing from countries”.
Cuba has a track record of success in this approach: In 2014 and 2015, Cuban doctors worked against Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, reducing mortality rates of their patients from 50% to 20%, and introduced a preventive education programme to stop the spread of the disease. As of January 2015, Cuba had trained more than 13,000 people to deal with Ebola in 28 African countries, in addition to 68,000 people in Latin America and 628 in the Caribbean. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, some 40 countries on five continents have received Cuban doctors.
The offer of technical assistance holds great promise for developing countries, as many have shifted their focus to building strong 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 scale up production of the candidate vaccines they are developing”.
The press conference follows the four-day Progressive International for Vaccine Internationalism Summit in June 2021, which proclaimed a “new international health order” and was attended by the national governments of Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela, as well as the regional governments of Kisumu (Kenya) and Kerala (India), along with political leaders from 20 countries.
You can watch the full presentation here