How Cuba Developed Five COVID-19 Vaccines

7:25 minutes

a cuban woman nurse administers a vaccine to an older cuban man
A Cuban nurse administer’s a vaccine in Havana, June 26, 2021. Credit: Shutterstock

Cuba was able to quickly produce five coronavirus vaccines, thanks to the island’s robust biotech industry. For decades, Cuba has produced its own home-grown vaccines and distributed them to neighboring countries. 

But sanctions and political dynamics have complicated Cuba’s ability to distribute their COVID-19 vaccines with the world. 

Ira talks with Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer of economic and social history at Glasgow University, and author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World.

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Segment Guests

Helen Yaffe

Helen Yaffe is a senior lecturer in Economic & Social History at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: We’ll now turn to Cuba, a country that’s developed its own protein-based vaccines, that tried and true vaccine technology we’ve just been talking about. The Cuban government was able to quickly produce five vaccines thanks to the island’s robust biotech industry. For the past several decades, Cuba has produced its own vaccines and distributed them to other needy countries. But sanctions and political dynamics have complicated Cuba’s ability to distribute their highly-effective COVID vaccines around the world.

You don’t hear much about Cuba’s vaccine expertise, but you will hear about it now. Joining me now is Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer of economic and social history at Glasgow University and author of the book We Are Cuba– How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World. Welcome to Science Friday.

HELEN YAFFE: Thank you for the invite.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Tell us, why did Cuba decide to develop its own COVID vaccines?

HELEN YAFFE: Well, I think that really it’s two points. The first is the necessity. Cuba needs vaccines, like the whole world does, but also, it was going to obviously face greater obstacles than even most Global South countries because of the United States blockade. And the second thing is, of course, that Cuba has the capacity. And it has the capacity because it has a well-established biotech sector.

IRA FLATOW: Cuba’s got five different vaccines. They’re all protein-based vaccines, which we spoke about earlier. What is unique about how they were developed and administered compared to other vaccines globally?

HELEN YAFFE: They are using platforms that the Cubans have tried and tested that have proven to be very efficient and safe. The Soberana vaccines, which are produced by the Finlay Institute– which is famous for producing the world’s first meningitis B vaccine in 1988, and it produces three different Soberana vaccines– when they reached clinical trials, we could say they were the only vaccine in the world which was what they call a conjugate vaccine, using a combination of different approaches and based on enhancing the immune response.

IRA FLATOW: And how effective are they? And I understand that infants as young as two have been getting them.

HELEN YAFFE: Yes, right. Cuba has become the first country in the world to vaccinate its infant population from two years old. All of their vaccines have shown efficacy of over 90%. The childhood group from two to five using the Soberana vaccines demonstrated the highest efficacy. It was something like 98% or 99%.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You know, one of the criticisms about Cuba is that, well, they don’t publish their results in medical journals. Should that raise alarms about their efficacy?

HELEN YAFFE: They have just had an article published in Vaccines, which is one of the very big journals. The sort of top scientists involved in this have explained that they have had faced some obstacles and unusual delays in getting their work published. So it’s not that they haven’t submitted their papers to globally-accepted, peer-reviewed journals. It’s not clear why there are those delays. It may well be because of the intensification of sanctions under the Trump administration. And what people need to understand is that these also target things like scientific exchange and collaborations.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I know that over 90% of Cubans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Why hasn’t there been the same level of vaccine hesitancy there that we see here and elsewhere?

HELEN YAFFE: Cuba was a country 60 years ago which was riddled with diseases. And they invested very heavily in their public health care system and their medical science system. And since then, they’ve eliminated six diseases. They have a childhood vaccination program which protects all Cubans against 13 diseases with 11 vaccines. Eight of them are produced domestically.

So there is a great deal of confidence and pride, I think you can say, in the medical science capacity of the nation, because it’s very much a product of the development strategy pursued post-1959 under the socialist state. And the hesitancy that we see in other countries– a lot of that is to do with the fact that they don’t quite trust these companies that have rolled out vaccines, particularly those using revolutionary technology not really tried and tested. But also, these are companies that are essentially motivated by profit. They’ve made huge fortunes during the process of the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think that breeds skepticism.

Now, none of those issues are relevant in Cuba. The public health care system is integrally linked to the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. And you know, they’re all state owned. There are no private interests and no speculators making huge fortunes out of this global health crisis.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. Cuban vaccines have yet to be approved by the World Health Organization. Why has there been such a backlog between the vaccines’ deployment in Cuba and this approval process?

HELEN YAFFE: The approval process is extremely comprehensive and requires, as they put it, first-world standards. So it’s not just judgment on the efficacy results and safety results, but they’re also judging the laboratories, the capacity for industrial production, and so on. And that’s where Cuba has struggled. Rather than submitting an application that could get rejected on the basis of the resources they work with, they have made a lot of investments, spent a lot of time in revamping a new laboratory.

Other countries don’t need to wait for the World Health Organization to approve the Cuban vaccines, so they are already exporting their vaccines to at least four countries. They’ve donated vaccines to other countries. And they are currently in talks with another 20 countries about either exporting the vaccine or the technology to produce it.

IRA FLATOW: What’s at stake if those who have received the Cuban vaccines aren’t considered fully vaccinated by countries like the US and the UK?

HELEN YAFFE: If Cuba really does start to export possibly hundreds of millions of doses of their vaccine to the Global South, it will become a really big obstacle for global mobility if the Cuban vaccine is not recognized as one of the vaccines that are accepted for international travel. The notion, I think, is that when the World Health Organization approves the Cuban vaccine, it makes the process of national authorities recognizing that vaccine much quicker and much easier.

IRA FLATOW: Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer of economics and social history at Glasgow University and author of the book We Are Cuba– How a Revolutionary People Have Survived a Post-Soviet World. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

HELEN YAFFE: Thank you very much.

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