The results are in. Abdala, one of the Cuban vaccine candidates, is 92.28% effective. Sitting on the couch with my dad, my wife and my son watching the evening news for a moment, I felt the urge to go out on the balcony and clap like we did each night for several months at the beginning of the pandemic to honor all the scientists and public health staff behind the accomplishment. In the Spring of 2020, I read on Facebook that in Spain and Italy every night people would clap on their balconies to show their gratitude to those on the frontlines. I shared on Facebook that we should do the same at 9 pm, a symbolic hour in Havana when the cannons of the Morro Castle announce that night has fallen and during the colonial era, the gates of the walled city would be closed. Soon many people began to do just that. Every night after the evening news, we would go out to clap for our family doctor and nurse who live just across the street.
But on Monday when the urge to go out on the balcony and clap came over me, I realized that nobody clapped anymore. The everyday emergencies, food scarcity, huge lines, disappearing currencies and endemic uncertainty had overshadowed the priority of clapping and somewhere along the way we stopped without even noticing.
This week, as we listened to the news report, we immediately compared our vaccine with the top vaccines in the world. Better than Johnson and Johnson, and up there with Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna.
Throughout the last year, with all its ups and downs, my most frequent thought has been “When is this all going to be over?.” In Cuba we first watched the world get sicker from a distance, proud to escape the Covid cloud, until March 2020, when the first cases of coronavirus were detected in Cuba. Since then, the daily reports of the number of sick people, new measures and lockdowns became the most frequent stories in the media.
My child, like so many others, celebrated his first birthday blowing out candles at a party without guests, without the people who should have shared this milestone. It was, of course, the right decision, but with a huge emotional cost. I’ve thought so many times about the smiles hidden from my child surrounded by masked people and wonder if he will be more interested in eye expressions or gestures as a result.
But they didn’t give up and now we have a vaccine that was 4th on a list ruled by big money and first world countries.
During this past year another question has dogged me: What can I do to help? As a psychologist, I have held therapy sessions via WhatsApp to help people cope with the anxieties of the COVID era. Adjusting to the new technology has challenged me, but it is the only way to keep doing what I love and help others ease the load we all carry in isolation. But I felt it wasn’t enough, there must be something else that I could do. As I read the news about the vaccines being developed abroad, I felt a sense of hopelessness. As-others abroad were getting immunized, I couldn’t see a future for us beyond wearing masks and social distancing to keep us all safe. When I heard that scientists here in Cuba were creating our own vaccines, I knew I wanted to help. After the first two stages of the trials concluded, our family doctor called to tell us that our consultorio had been selected for the study and she wanted to know if my wife and I would like to participate.
We are science lovers in my house and we were thrilled to imagine the possibility of being part of it. We might not be able to invent a vaccine like Abdala, but we could do something to help. My wife and I went to the family doctor’s office and received the whole explanation about the study. We were screened and according to the protocol were even given pregnancy tests before signing the consent forms. I remember when we got the first shot, we were super excited. We knew there was a chance that we would be in the placebo group, but we didn’t care. Our motivation was to help the country and move science forward, not only protect ourselves from Covid. On the day of the first shot, everything was well organized and there were plenty of doctors and nurses available for questions. After the shot, we were required to wait under observation for an hour, having our blood pressure monitored.
As I settled down in the rocking chair on the wide porch of the vaccination center with my music in my headphones, I felt just fine. I was given a log where the doctors asked me to register any reactions, however slight, during the 28 days after the shot. A month later, we returned for our second shot, again without reactions. A month later, we received the news that I was to return for the last Abdala dose but my wife had been in the placebo group. Now that we knew that she was not protected, I became the one responsible for the risky tasks of opening doors, taking change, and waiting in lines. With the third dose, I had no adverse reactions, no pain, just happiness at taking one more step towards defeating Covid and getting our lives back.
With the third dose, I had no adverse reactions, no pain, just happiness at taking one more step towards defeating Covid and getting our lives back.
This week, as we listened to the news report, we immediately compared our vaccine with the top vaccines in the world. Better than Johnson and Johnson, and up there with Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna. Vaccines made in the First World by huge transnational companies with research budgets in the millions (maybe billions?) And then, there we were. Abdala, a vaccine developed on my island, by Cuban scientists. Made by regular folks that I’ve probably seen in a line for food, on a bus, or passed by in the street. Perhaps the mother of one of my former students or a neighbor. We’ve all had a hard year, with thousands of reasons to lose hope. But they didn’t give up and now we have a vaccine that was 4th on a list ruled by big money and first world countries. They did it. We did it. My Cuban pride dialed up to the max, I felt an injection of energy that I’d been missing. I was proud of the accomplishments of my island and my scientists and Cuba, for a moment, got back on its feet again.
(Hero image photo credit: Ernesto Millan and David López Cruz with special thanks to Rita McNiff.)