CubaBrief: Fact Sheet on June 1, 2023 OpEd by Achal Prabhala and Vitor Ido published in The Washington Post

“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Fact Sheet

The June 1, 2023 OpEd by Achal Prabhala and Vitor Ido published in The Washington Post was filled with a number of factual errors that need to be addressed, and that is the purpose of this fact sheet. We remain open to additional suggestions and/or challenges to this document.

Before listing some of their misstatements it is important to summarize the outcome of the Cuban government’s response to the pandemic.

Our World In Data is a project of the Global Change Data Lab, whose “mission is to publish the ‘research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems’” published an interactive map reproduced in The Economist titled “Estimated cumulative excess deaths per 100,000 people during COVID.”

It reveals that Cuba (592 per 100,000) was only second to Peru (602 per 100,000) in excess deaths during COVID in the Americas. In contrast, Costa Rica reported (166 per 100,000) excess deaths. The United States that had a mediocre response to COVID had ( 399 per 100,000) still a better outcome than Cuba’s.

Claim:  “Cuba was systematically blocked in its quest to make its own highly effective vaccines.”

Reality: It was a U.S. scientist who helped to kick start Cuba’s biotech sector in the 1980s. Despite Havana having a history of developing biotech through the Soviet Union’s biological weapons industry, the development of its commercial application was facilitated by American oncologist Richard Lee Clark, of MD Anderson in Houston, Texas who also made introductions to Cuban scientists with European partner Dr. Kari Cantell. Havana then assisted Beijing in developing its own biotech sector and in 2002, the two governments signed a  formal agreement to produce monoclonal antibodies. By 2004 Cuba had joint ventures in China that included both biotech, and genetic engineering. Douglass Starr in Wired Magazine on December 1, 2004 reported on this phenomenon in the article “ The Cuban Biotech Revolution“.

Claim: “We realized we wouldn’t have the money to buy vaccines for our people, so we had to make our own, and we had to do it in a very short time,” Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, the director of science and innovation at BioCubaFarma, told us recently. In August 2021, one of BioCubaFarma’s laboratories also produced a booster.”

Reality: Havana sought a propaganda victory with the claim that Cuba would “be the first country in the world to vaccinate their whole population with their own vaccines.” With the hope of marketing them internationally. Unlike the rest of Latin America, Cuba did not purchase vaccines from manufacturers, and did not sign up to the global Covax initiative to ensure vaccine access for poorer nations. Cuban vaccines were rolled out to the population on May 12, 2021 while clinical trials were still underway. However, when COVID deaths exploded in the summer of 2021, and became a contributing factor in nationwide protests in July 2021, in August 2021 the Cuban government began to distribute the Chinese vaccine “sinopharm.” Argentina that received Russia’s Sputnik vaccine on December 24, 2020 had better COVID outcomes than Cuba. Although the Chinese and Russian vaccines are not supposed to be more effective than the Cuban, they had better outcomes. Also neither Russia or China used the Cuban vaccines with their respective populations.

Claim: “Cuba could have asked the WHO to certify its vaccines to make it easier for other countries to buy them with international aid. But it couldn’t afford to engage with the WHO after President Donald Trump not only reversed the mild sanctions reforms introduced by his predecessor, but also designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Reality: WHO’s relationship with Havana was not impacted by the 2021 re-designation. Nor was it impacted at the height of the Cold War. Cuba was first placed on the list of state terror sponsors in 1982 during the Reagan Administration after the US State Department confirmed that Havana was using a narcotics ring to funnel both arms and cash to the Colombian M19 terrorist group then battling to overthrow Colombia’s democratic government. Nevertheless, during the Reagan Administration Cuba was able to develop its biotech sector. and in 1986, directors of both the World Health Organization and the U.S. based Pan American Health Organization attended the inauguration of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) west of Havana. During the next decade Havana invested more than $1 billion in the Western Havana Scientific Pole, a cluster of 52 institutions and enterprises related to biotechnology that would serve as the epicenter of Cuba’s growing industry.  Furthermore, the WHO did not certify Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, but individual countries verified its effectiveness, and it has been widely used. Not so with the Cuban vaccines.

Claim: “ Remarkably, Cuba eventually exported almost as many vaccine doses as it used at home, supplying Venezuela, Mexico, Vietnam, Syria, Nicaragua, Belarus and Iran. But while many countries in Africa and South Asia also desperately needed vaccines, they did not take advantage of Cuba’s offer.”

Reality: It appears that allies of the Cuban government purchased the vaccine and provided positive media coverage, but after the initial PR, the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine arose. Venezuela received the first shipment of Cuba’s Abdala coronavirus vaccine on June 24, 2021, but on September 26, 2021 Venezuela’s National Academy of Medicine “expressed concern over the use of Cuba’s Abdala coronavirus vaccine due to a lack of scientific research on its safety and efficacy.” On February 7, 2023 it was reported that Mexico had used less than 3 percent of the nine million Abdala vaccines purchased from Cuba. Similar concerns were raised in Nicaragua, and by June 2022 the vaccine brigade was no longer using the Cuban vaccine, but Pfizer donated by the United States.  Countries in Africa and South Asia didn’t take Cuba’s offer because 1) it was not free and 2) the vaccine is not effective.

Below is the OpEd.

The Washington Post, June 1, 2023

Opinion

Next pandemic, let Cuba vaccinate the world

By Achal Prabhala and Vitor Ido

Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa. Vitor Ido is a program officer in the Health, Intellectual Property and Biodiversity Program at the South Centre in Geneva.

How can humanity prevent the next pandemic from being as disastrous as this one, in which as many as 15 million people have died? This past week, countries of the World Health Organization met in Geneva to begin debating a pandemic preparedness accord. A primary aim is to quickly develop new cures and vaccines, and the capacity to deliver them to everyone on the planet.

While no one yet knows what the WHO will ultimately recommend, it’s possible to predict one thing it will not: easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba’s homegrown biotech industry, which has the wherewithal to develop cutting-edge vaccines and treatments and share them with countries unable to afford first-world pharmaceutical companies’ premium prices.

This is a mistake.

During the covid-19 crisis, the United States had the opportunity to share its vaccine technology with the world, and its failure to do so prolonged the pandemic at home and abroad. In June 2022, a senior Biden administration official admitted that the omicron variant, which has been responsible for more than 300,000 deaths in the United States and more than 1.5 million globally, might never have emerged if the world been sufficiently vaccinated in 2021.

What is less known is that Cuba had the same opportunity to help vaccinate the world. The story of how Cuba was systematically blocked in its quest to make its own highly effective vaccines widely available offers crucial lessons.

The most recent chapter of this story began in summer 2021. The delta variant was ravaging India and making its way around the world. New vaccines offered hope, but the most under-resourced countries could not get them for love or money. While the United States and Europe donated doses, their efforts were hardly enough to solve the global problem. Crucially, these governments could not persuade the companies they had financed to share the technologies that could have enabled other countries to make vaccines on their own. In this grim landscape, it was astonishing to learn that Cuba had made two effective coronavirus vaccines from scratch, and then vowed to share its intellectual property worldwide.

“We realized we wouldn’t have the money to buy vaccines for our people, so we had to make our own, and we had to do it in a very short time,” Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, the director of science and innovation at BioCubaFarma, told us recently. In August 2021, one of BioCubaFarma’s laboratories also produced a booster. Both demonstrated more than 90 percent efficacy, on par with the leading Western vaccines.

The cost of developing these shots was $50 million, according to BioCubaFarma, far less than the billions invested by the U.S. government and the hundreds of millions invested by Germany in theirs.

Remarkably, Cuba eventually exported almost as many vaccine doses as it used at home, supplying Venezuela, Mexico, Vietnam, Syria, Nicaragua, Belarus and Iran. But while many countries in Africa and South Asia also desperately needed vaccines, they did not take advantage of Cuba’s offer.

To explain why they did not, we must go back to 1962, when the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba went into effect. Since then, escalating sanctions, which the United States has enforced by applying steady political and financial pressure, have isolated Cuba not just from America but also effectively the world. Stiff penalties for violating U.S. sanctions have ensured that institutions and governments routinely over-comply with them.

Cuba could have asked the WHO to certify its vaccines to make it easier for other countries to buy them with international aid. But it couldn’t afford to engage with the WHO after President Donald Trump not only reversed the mild sanctions reforms introduced by his predecessor, but also designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. This has meant that, even in countries where it is legal to transact with Cuba, few banks are willing to risk hefty fines and criminal sanctions for being perceived as supporting terrorism.

Cuban-American relations are a political live wire, but new times call for new measures. The world has changed since 1962. The specter haunting it today is not communism but another global health emergency. There is little indication that the Biden administration will pressure U.S. pharmaceutical companies to share their medical inventions with the world. But President Biden could take a giant step toward global health security by rolling back the Trump administration’s draconian Cuba policies. If he went further by allowing for new exceptions in the U.S. sanctions regime, then Cuba could keep developing — and sharing — innovative vaccines and treatments for the world’s diseases.

More than three years on, it’s obvious that the world reacted poorly to the onset of the coronavirus, that lives were unnecessarily lost. But there is time now to prepare for the next pandemic, to set a course toward a more equitable distribution of medical technologies. The United States’ age-old embargo is hurting not just Cuba. It’s hurting the world.


https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/06/01/pandemic-vaccines-cuba-who-planning/