“The production of vaccines was accompanied by a vigorous test, trace and isolate system which kept Cuba virtually COVID-free during parts of 2020. This test and trace system was led by Cuban doctors and medical students who often went door to door.”
By Stuart Howard
When the world comes to analyse the effectiveness of different national and international responses to the COVID pandemic, special attention should be paid to one middle-income island state in the Caribbean, Cuba.
Cuba might not seem to be the most likely place to expect world-leading medical breakthroughs. Indeed there has long been concern by international health institutions about the negative impact of the brutal decades-long US economic blockade on the country’s health system, with the lack of availability of many basic medicines. Most globalised drugs are only available from US sources. The blockade was tightened after 2016 by President Trump and continues under President Biden.
From the very start of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro put health care at the very heart of his socialist project. In the 1980s, at least 11 billion dollars was put into health care, including the far-sighted decision to set up a state-managed biotech sector. As a result, according to the British Medical Journal, Cuba now “manufactures eight of the eleven vaccines used in its national immunisation programme, which has eliminated polio, diphtheria, measles, rubella, and whooping cough. It has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccines a year, including the world’s first meningitis B vaccine to more than 40 countries”.
Then COVID came along. While rich countries developed and hoarded COVID vaccines and global pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech reaped unconscionable profits, Cuba set about developing its own immunisation programme. Cuban scientists produced the Abdala vaccine (92% effective after 3 doses) as well as Sobrena 1 and Sobrena 2 (91% effective when combined with the Soberana Plus booster). These vaccines do not require extreme refrigeration and are cheap and easy to manufacture. While all these vaccines were trialled and tested before approval, there have been some criticisms that the Cuban authorities have not released enough data about them.
The production of vaccines was accompanied by a vigorous test, trace and isolate system which kept Cuba virtually COVID-free during parts of 2020. This test and trace system was led by Cuban doctors and medical students who often went door to door. Cuba has more doctors per head than any other country in the world.
When Cuba opened its borders in November 2020, however, it resulted in an alarming surge of infections which ran into the summer. There were even fears that the Cuban health system, starved of such things as painkillers and antibiotics, by the US blockade might not be able to cope.
A further acceleration of the vaccination campaign brought infection rates back down again, and there is now a fourth vaccine dose to combat omicron. Currently, more than 95% of Cubans over the age of 2 years have been fully vaccinated. Even with this, Cubans are currently still required to wear masks everywhere in public places both indoors and outside.
Cuba has been exporting its vaccines to other countries, including Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Vietnam. The government is now seeking WHO approvals for its vaccines in order that they can also be exported through WHO mechanisms. The country has also sent more than 2000 doctors (53 medical brigades to 39 countries) with their response to the pandemic, including to Italy. Cuba gained useful experience in providing such medical solidarity missions to other countries when Cuban doctors were sent to African countries to help combat the Ebola virus during 2013-14. Many poorer countries now see Cuba’s COVID vaccines as their best hope for getting immunisation.
If governments are to gain lessons for what makes an effective state of preparedness for fighting a global pandemic like COVID, they must surely list down having ready access to vaccines; a plentiful supply of trained doctors and health workers; government policies that give a permanent priority to free health care for all; and an internationalist approach to global health emergencies. Cuba’s socialist system has shown itself to score well on all four counts.
- This article originally appeared in print in Labour Briefing (Co-operative) magazine and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe by sending a £20 cheque with your address to ‘Labour Briefing Co-operative Ltd’, 7 Malam Gardens, London, E14 OTR.