Cuban medic vaccinates a woman with syringe
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On 25 January 2022 at a conference organised by the Progressive International, the Cuban government announced plans to provide 200 million doses per year of its Covid-19 vaccines to underdeveloped nations. This internationalist programme will include provision of vaccines at lower than market prices to poor countries, technology transfers to allow local production, and medical brigades to train local health workers in the delivery of the vaccines. With Cuba facing a difficult struggle to tackle inflation and boost economic growth, the success of its domestic vaccine drive and the export of vaccines for mutual assistance with other low-income countries will prove crucial. WILL HARNEY reports.

Out of a population of 11 million, more than 90% of Cubans (100% of those who are eligible) have now received at least one dose of home-grown vaccines Abdala, Soberana 02 or Soberana Plus. Cuba has now triple-vaccinated more than 85% of its population, using vaccines developed by the country’s own state-run biotechnology sector. Children over the age of two are included in this. This puts Cuba first in the world for number of doses per 100 population. For a former colony in the Caribbean, struggling under a 60-year US blockade, this outstanding success is only possible due to the superiority of socialist planning over capitalism. The vaccines provide at least 90% protection against symptomatic Covid-19 infection after three doses. New infections fell from a peak of almost 10,000 per day in late August 2021 to fewer than 100 per day in mid-December, and deaths from Covid-19 have fallen from almost 100 per day in August to around two per day (often zero) throughout January 2022. 

At the end of November 2021, Cuba’s Finlay Institute for Vaccines started the process of updating the Soberana Plus vaccine with a protein from Omicron to increase its effectiveness against the new variant, which has become the dominant strain. The Omicron wave appeared to peak at 3,506 new cases per day on 15 January. Cuba has now surpassed one million confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, yet with almost 50% of the population having received a fourth, booster jab by 18 January, Cuban scientists have suggested cases could rapidly decline by March if the disease follows its current downward trajectory. The Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology has begun a study of the Abdala vaccine to assess administering it to children under two years old.

Since the early 1980s, the Cuban state has pursued a conscious plan to develop its biotechnology industry to serve the country’s public health system without being reliant on imperialist pharmaceutical monopolies. Yet the blockade restricts the importation of medicines and medical equipment from the US, or from companies using US-made parts in their products, creating a shortage of raw materials for vaccine production, syringes and other vaccination equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic. This meant Cuba had to call on international solidarity to break the blockade: six million syringes were donated from US organisations, 800,000 from the Mexican government and 100,000 from Cubans in China. Rock around the Blockade, the solidarity campaign of the RCG, donated to Cubanos En UK’s fundraiser for vaccination supplies in 2021.

The widespread uptake of vaccines also demonstrates that anti-vaccine sentiment is virtually non-existent in Cuba.* Preventable diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, meningitis and hepatitis B have been virtually eliminated due to Cuban-produced vaccines and pharmaceuticals. Family doctors are embedded in neighbourhoods, allowing them to administer the National Immunisation Programme effectively. The Cuban state, mass organisations and media promote science education and consistently support public health measures necessary to control the spread of Covid-19.

Equally apparent is Cuba’s commitment to providing vaccines for the world’s poor and working-class people. The wealthiest countries including Britain have staunchly opposed the waiver of vaccine patents, a policy that would allow developing countries to produce their own vaccines instead of purchasing from the pharmaceutical monopolies hosted by the imperialist nations. An analysis published in December 2020 found that rich nations, comprising just 14% of the global population, had bought enough doses (53% of the global stock of the most promising vaccines) to vaccinate their populations three times over. By January 2022, 80% of adults in the EU were fully vaccinated, while just 9.5% of people in low-income countries had received even a single dose. 

Manufacturing capacity across Africa, Asia and Latin America goes unused, as vaccine technology is guarded as a corporate secret. Underdeveloped nations are paying a median price of $6.88 per Covid-19 vaccine dose, almost nine times more than for non-covid vaccines before the pandemic. The emergence of Omicron is a direct consequence of this vaccine apartheid. There are likely to be enough vaccines produced globally to fully vaccinate the world in 2022, yet imperialist hoarding means that more than 100 countries are expected to miss the WHO’s target for 70% of the world to be fully vaccinated by July 2022. 

In this context, socialist Cuba’s development of coronavirus vaccines is a potential source of hope for billions of people. Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines are cheap to mass produce and can be stored at 2-8ºC. Argentina, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe have all made agreements with Cuba to purchase vaccines or produce them locally in partnership with the Cuban biotechnology sector, and there are trade discussions with a further 20 countries. On 30 December 2021, Mexico announced it had approved the Abdala vaccine for use. Cuba is seeking WHO emergency approval for Soberana 02 and Abdala to accelerate their export to low-income countries.

Encouragingly, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) has announced financing of $53.3m, to be administered by the UN, to strengthen Cuba’s capacity to produce medicines, equipment and vaccines against Covid-19. This is the first such development loan to Cuba by CABEI. 

The US is more desperate than ever to isolate Cuba: on 19 January, the Progressive International announced that donations raised for its vaccine internationalism conference in Cuba had been blocked by the Dutch bank ING; this is a clear violation of EU law forbidding extraterritorial application of the US blockade. Solidarity with Cuba must be organised to demand an end to the US blockade and to allow Cuba’s vaccines to be used in the global fight against Covid-19.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 286, February/March 2022

*Belkys M Galino-Santana et al, ‘A Cuban Perspective on the Antivaccination Movement’, Medicc Review October 2019, Vol 21, No 4.