Startup Cuba writer Gabriela Rivero summarizes the progress of Cuba's vaccine development in the context of the country's efforts to fight COVID-19.
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Volunteer registration for Cuban vaccine candidate trials. Photo: Instituto Finlay/Twitter.

Cuba looks to be ready to submit Soberana for emergency use approval and mass vaccinate its population. After months of mask mandates and social distancing, closed borders and natural medicinal treatments, it seemed like Cuba was on the verge of eradicating COVID-19. Unfortunately, after premature gatherings like one notorious party in Bauta as well as the many other challenges of safely reopening while dealing with stir-crazy citizens and a highly transmissible virus, the island saw a spike in cases that doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Before the spike, most Cuban provinces were in the last phases of reopening, making a return to lockdowns and the implementation of a new 7pm curfew in Havana pretty disheartening. However, while the number of cases continues to climb, there is a glimmer of hope for the island. First, the number of recoveries continues to be high and the number of critical cases low. Second —and most exciting— is the news that on August 24th, Cuba joined the handful of countries starting clinical trials in the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine. 

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Daily COVID-19 recap from the Ministerio de Salud, as of September 14, 2020.

 

However, while the number of cases continues to climb, there is a glimmer of hope for the island.

At the time of this writing, Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the thirtieth of the more than two hundred countries worldwide currently working on developing a vaccine to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) to start clinical trials. Spearheaded by the Instituto Finlay de Vacunas in collaboration with the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) and the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), the island’s Soberana 01 vaccine trial has been progressing steadily. 

Soberana 01 is what’s known as a “subunit vaccine,” meaning it uses an antigen to trigger the production of antibodies that will target the virus.

Related Post: COVID-19 in Cuba: On Cuban Time

Soberana 01 is what’s known as a “subunit vaccine,” meaning it uses an antigen to trigger the production of antibodies that will target the virus. It showed promising results in preclinical testing with mice and rabbits, and in a gutsy show of confidence, head researchers Dr. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, Dr. Dagmar García, and Dr. Yury Valdés Balbín of the Instituto Finlay became the first human subjects to be inoculated with Soberana 01 at the end of July before the clinical trial officially began. 

So far, the only reported side effect is mild pain at the site of injection, which anyone who has ever gotten a tetanus shot knows isn’t necessarily cause for concern.

Since then, Cuba has completed both parts of the initial clinical phase for Soberana, first vaccinating 20 participants between 19 and 59 years old on August 24th. This was followed by the vaccination of another 20 participants between 60 and 80 years old on September 3rd. 

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So far, the only reported side effect is mild pain at the site of injection, which anyone who has ever gotten a tetanus shot knows isn’t necessarily cause for concern. The vaccine is composed of two doses given 28 days apart, and the trial will end 28 days after the second dose is administered during the second clinical phase, which should begin soon. Health officials hope to publish the results of the trial in January. 

…Cubans will receive the vaccine free of charge through the island’s nationalized public health system.

While most countries have been struggling to figure out how to make COVID-19 vaccines as affordable as possible for the public, Cubans will receive the Soberana vaccine free of charge through the island’s nationalized public health system. Additionally, plans for the mass production of the vaccine —one of the trickiest logistical hurdles currently facing the international community— are reportedly already in place. Cuba’s representative to the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. José Montoya, also stated that if successful, the island would share the vaccine with other countries. 

soberana
Photo: Instituto Finlay.

This is all encouraging news, but it’s important to remember to take it with a grain of salt. A lot can happen between now and November, when Cuba’s clinical trial is expected to conclude, especially given how information about COVID-19 is constantly evolving. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that famous Cuban ingenuity pays off.

🕗 Updated 2:25 PM ET, Fri March 26, 2021

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Gabriela Rivero is a recent graduate of Harvard College with a major in Sociology and minor in Latinx Studies. She comes from a colorful Caribbean (Cuban & Venezuelan) and Mediterranean (Spanish & Italian) background, to which she attributes her love of sunshine and her addiction to guava pastelitos. Gabby uses her English–Spanish bilingualism in her work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), helping immigrants obtain asylum in the United States. She'll be starting law school at the University of Miami to become an immigration attorney —shocker!-— specializing in asylum law. She enjoys writing, cooking, singing, and playing tennis and guitar. However, Gabby’s favorite activity is traveling to Cuba, exploring her grandparents’ home country and visiting the friends she made while studying abroad at the University of Havana.

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