US-Cuba normalisation could increase production of COVID-19 vaccinesMonday, March 01, 2021
If US President Joe Biden eases the trade embargo against Cuba, one benefit to developing countries, including the Caribbean, could be greater access to COVID-19 vaccines at an affordable price.
Cuban scientists have been working on four vaccine candidates to counter the pandemic. They believe that their most successful candidate, Sovereign 2, will enter a final phase of testing next month.
Vincent Verez, one of the leading scientists on the Cuban team, says that clinical tests, in two trial phases so far, have revealed that Sovereign 2 is “very safe with very few adverse effects”.
The scientific team claims that producing the vaccine was made more difficult by the sanctions on Cuba. They were not able to buy all the equipment and raw materials they needed, including spectrometers used for quality control. Nonetheless, their work is continuing. They have used a 20-year-old spectrometer that is still powerful enough to analyse the vaccine.
A successful coronavirus vaccine from Cuba would help to break the global control of the market by the big pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe.
Cuba's biotech sector is well developed, making eight vaccines (for other diseases) administered to children in the country and exported to more than 30 countries.
Its geographical location in the Caribbean, and willingness to share a successful vaccine with the developing world, would ease the pressure on Caricom countries which face a twin problem in relation to inoculating their people. The first is to access vaccines being produced by the large pharmaceutical companies, particularly Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and the second is getting better prices.
Caricom countries have not been able to vaccinate more than one per cent of their people, despite Herculean efforts by governments to secure vaccines. The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, established by the World Health Organization (WHO) to negotiate both supply and price with the major vaccine suppliers, has encountered major obstacles and is yet to deliver any of the vaccines for which Caribbean countries have already paid. A roll-out is scheduled to start soon, but it will be less than 10 per cent of the quantities that were ordered.
The generosity of the Indian Government in donating 570,000 does of the AstraZeneca vaccines to Caricom countries has helped them to get the inoculation programme started. But to get to the point of vaccinating 80 per cent of their populations, so as to achieve herd immunity, requires access to more vaccines at prices less than the suppliers are offering.
Given that the world's richest countries have pre-ordered and pre-paid for supplies, the big pharmaceutical companies are under no pressure to reduce prices or ramp up production, even as global demand is increasing rapidly.
Pfizer expects about US$15 billion in revenue this year from its COVID-19 vaccine developed with BioNTech.
Further, the governments of countries in which the large producers of vaccines are located have implemented measures restricting exports of COVID-19 vaccines, citing intellectual property rights.
Pfizer and Moderna claim the rights to vast amounts of intellectual property that will be useful, if not necessary, for others to develop vaccines in the future.
Sadly, the governments of the countries in which Pfizer and Moderna are located have also spurned urgings to facilitate such exports. Human rights, including the right to life and health, have been disregarded.
For these reasons it would be beneficial to the Caribbean if the most promising of the four vaccines that Cuba is developing could secure WHO authorisation after successful testing.
While he was campaigning for the presidency, Biden pledged to reverse sanctions placed on Cuba by his predecessor Donald Trump in his efforts to win Florida, where a large number of Cuban exiles reside.
One of the most unfounded measures against Cuba is its listing, in the last days of Trump's Administration, as a sponsor of terrorism. The critics of this listing have rightly pointed out that it is unjustified and serves no purpose other than to further cripple the Cuban economy. More particularly, it will hamper deals between Cuba and other countries. Governments of Cuba's closest neighbours, including Caricom, have called for its reversal.
As well, about 20 churches and religious organisations in the US also sent a letter on February 17, 2021 to President Biden asking that the decision to include Cuba on the list of states sponsoring terrorism be revoked.
At the same time, others, including the new chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, continue to demand harder and tougher measures against Cuba. The latter represents opposition that wants nothing less than the immediate collapse of the Cuban Government.
Biden's instincts on normalisation of US relations with Cuba are grounded in the successful efforts of the Barack Obama Administration of which he was vice-president.
Nothing good will come from pursuing a decades-old failed policy that no one wants, except disgruntled Cuban-American exiles — a few of whom are in the US Congress.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com
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