A 60-year U.S. embargo that prevents U.S.-made products from being exported to Cuba has forced the small island nation to develop its own COVID-19 vaccines and rely on open source designs for life-saving medical equipment such as ventilators. We speak to leading Cuban scientist Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa about how massive mobilization helped produce three original vaccines that have proven highly effective against the coronavirus. “In a moment that the whole world was mobilizing to face this tremendous menace that was killing people around the world, the U.S. administration did not lift any of the 400 sanctions that were slapped on Cuba during the Trump administration plus this decades-long embargo,” says Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience. “Medicines and vaccines are not a commodity. It’s not something to get rich with. It’s something to save people’s lives.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
Cuba has announced plans to deliver as many as 200 million doses of its homegrown COVID vaccines to nations in the Global South. Despite the U.S. embargo, Cuba now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Cuba has also announced it will soon apply for approval by the World Health Organization for one of its vaccines, Abdala, which has been shown to be highly effective.
This all comes as Cuba prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. embargo, which has severely curtailed Cuba’s response to the pandemic, making it harder to import critical medical equipment and supplies. The embargo began on February 7, 1962, by President John F. Kennedy. It’s continued under 11 U.S. presidents since then.
We’re joined now by Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, the director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience. He has played a key role in Cuba’s response to the pandemic.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doctor. It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about how Cuba has dealt with the pandemic, its plans to give out hundreds of millions of vaccines? And what? You’re reporting Cuba, this month, between seven-day averages of one to four deaths, daily averages?
DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: OK. Well, first, thanks for having me on the program. I enjoy your show very much. I watch it frequently in Cuba. So thanks for this invitation.
I think Cuba really faced the menace of the pandemic with trepidation. We were really worried, because we saw news around the world of people dying, intensive care units being overloaded, and new variants continuously being — coming — appearing and sweeping around the world.
I think the key to the Cuban response is the close coordination and collaboration of all the actors, everyone involved. So, one thing that happened is that all the research centers mobilized and started redirecting their work. And, for example, in the case of my center, which is a center for research on neuroscience — we study developmental disorders, Alzheimer’s disease — we decided to set that aside for a moment and start collaborating in preparing for the response of the pandemic.
And one of the things that happened is that several centers got together, and we started producing ventilators, because there was a shortage of ventilators. One of the effects of the embargo — or the blockade, as we call it in Cuba — that the U.S. has imposed on us for so long, it was difficult to get ventilators from the U.S., and even spare parts for ventilators that had been bought before the pandemic, some of them from Europe. But what’s happening is that if a company supplies something to Cuba, and then it’s bought off by a U.S. company, then they can’t sell us the spare parts. And this is a tremendously difficult situation in many areas of medical attention.
And here is something which is interesting because it shows the two sides of the relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. One of the ventilators we started manufacturing is an open source design, which was put on the internet by MIT. And this is, I think, very generous. This happened all over the world. People started sharing solutions for the pandemic. I think the pandemic really brought out generosity in people, solidarity. And that’s, I think, a very interesting aspect. And we took the design from MIT, adapted it to Cuban conditions, and we started building the ventilators. This is the good side of the coin. But on the other side, we couldn’t buy any of the parts in the U.S. And we had to change some of the — part of the design, and we had to go to sources far away, and sometimes at much higher prices. And this is incredible that in a moment that the whole world was mobilizing to face this tremendous menace that was killing people around the world, the U.S. administration did not lift any of the more than 400 sanctions that were slapped on Cuba during the Trump administration, plus this decades-long embargo. It didn’t budge an inch.
So, all that Cuba did — and I think we were very successful. If you look at the rates of death in — people that died in Cuba, of people that were infected at different moments, Cuba has been very successful compared with every country in this continent. And I think we achieved this because there was a massive response of all the population supporting all the measures that the public health system started orienting, and every resource in the country was mobilized.
To finish the story about our ventilators, we managed to manufacture 250 ventilators, that were delivered to hospitals all over Cuba. And immediately after this, we started working on a second ventilator. I mean, the second design was also open source, from the UCO in the U.K. They were very helpful, managed to collaborate. Cubans there, that live in the U.K., they did crowdfunding. They got the funds. They bought the parts, the components, sent it to Cuba. We got help from the European Union, from the World Health Organization, and we managed to start manufacturing another 250 ventilators. And this was something that was done with collaboration from many research centers, people working very hard, working nights, working weekends. And I think we managed to help the health system manage this very difficult situation, which became much tougher after the new variants came up, first Delta and then Omicron.
But I think that the really interesting aspect of this work is how Cuba, in less than a year, managed to develop three vaccines. And there, the embargo is really crippling, because you need, to manufacture vaccines, production facilities. You need different fermenters, if you’re going to make it through genetic engineering. You need chemicals. You need all kinds of supplies. And it was very trying to get this, because the impact of the embargo is not only that we cannot buy in the U.S. There are two additional add-on effects which make things difficult. One is that European or Japanese suppliers get scared off. We have negotiated. We’ve tried to buy materials from people in Europe, and they say, “Well, we could sell, but we would get into trouble with the U.S. We have big contracts in the U.S.” So, that’s one of the additional knock-on effects of the U.S. embargo. The second is that even though we sell products, Cuban products, abroad — and that’s what the Cuban pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry does: It sells products abroad. But to buy raw materials to be able to manufacture the subsidized and very low-cost medicines and products that are sold to the Cuban population — and when we try to bring the funds to Cuba, we try to use them, then all the bank operations are hampered by U.S. regulations. So, the embargo has a very strong effect, a very noxious effect, on the development of anything. But despite this, in one year, Cuba managed to develop its three vaccines, and now there’s a fourth vaccine on the way.
The interesting thing is that the rollout of the vaccines was very, very effective and very easy. I’d say the Cuban population, the Cuban people, have great trust in their health system. They don’t see it as something that’s separate from them. They collaborate with it. It’s not a money-making machine. Public health in Cuba is free for everyone. We have family doctors in every neighborhood. People trust their doctors. So, we’re very puzzled when we see the news abroad that there are people that distrust the vaccines, that there are people that don’t want to get vaccinated. In Cuba, there’s no vaccine mandate, but people just line up and are really anxious and enthusiastic to get vaccines. And we have over 80% of all the population with the full vaccination program. Everybody’s been vaccinated. And now we’re rolling out a booster, an additional booster vaccine. Over 50% of the population has received the booster. At our center, in addition to redirecting our work to manufacture ventilators, we also set up a vaccination center. We gave over 6,000 shots. The doctors and nurses that work at our center volunteered, and they were working very hard. And just people would call and come with enthusiasm.
And I think the important thing is that there’s been years of working up trust in science. People feel that the future of the country is really connected to science. And they see the scientists that developed the vaccines as heroes. Even some of the most popular songwriters and musicians have written songs about the vaccines and about the doctors. And I think this is part of a really consistent message of all society. When you see on Cuban TV anyone talking — it could be the president, it could be a minister, it could be a teacher, a sportsman — everybody is masked up. This has been a consistent message to all the population. And every day the Ministry of Public Health, on television, reports how many cases there are, if there’s any deaths. And this problem of keeping the public informed and of being straight, talking straight to them and really giving them information, has been very useful. And I think we’ve been successful in controlling this pandemic, although it’s been incredibly difficult, and we’ve had to manage and invent many, many ways to work around all the negative effects of the embargo.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Doctor, despite the effectiveness of the vaccines that Cuba has developed, they have not yet received approval from the World Health Organization. Could you explain why you think that is and what steps Cuba is taking to ensure that that approval comes? Because Cuba has also made commitments to donate vaccines or to give vaccines to low-income countries, and WHO approval is important for that.
DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: Yeah, WHO approval is very important, and Cuba is in conversations with the WHO to obtain this approval. But it’s not, let’s say, a barrier, because the regulatory body of every country has the right to decide which vaccines it uses. So, the equivalent of the FDA in different parts of the world are examining the Cuban vaccines, and, for example, in Vietnam and Venezuela and recently in Mexico, they have approved using the Cuban vaccines.
Cuba is working with the World Health Organization, and it’s finishing a new production plant in Mariel, the latest technology. And the idea is transferring production of vaccines to this new facility, so it will have all the possibilities of receiving an inspection by the World Health Organization and being finally approved. But this does not impede, it’s not an absolute barrier, because other countries can use their regulatory bodies, and they’re doing so. And so countries are now receiving Cuban vaccines. We think at the beginning of this year we will have this approval and that this process will be finished.
This new production facility, it’s called Mariel-CIGB. It was just finished. And it’s really top-notch. It has the most advanced technologies for production of biotech products. And we’re sure it will come out very successful in the inspections that are needed for approval by the World Health Organization. But that does not limit the possibility of helping other countries. And that’s going on now at this moment.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Valdés-Sosa, we only have a minute, but could you explain what plans Cuba has for technology transfer to allow other countries to manufacture Cuban vaccines?
DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: OK. This is already going on. Cuba has now reached an agreement with the Pasteur Institute in Iran, and they are now producing the Cuban Soberana vaccine. And Cuba is negotiating with other countries and is open to share its technology so it can be used worldwide.
One of the concerns we had when the epidemic began is that we knew that there would be a shortage of vaccines to reach everyone. And it’s absolutely clear, if we don’t vaccinate the whole world population, there’s going to be the risk — and it’s almost certain — that new variants will rise, and some will be able to circumvent and to get around the defenses that previous vaccines have achieved. So, Cuba is very open to this. We are part of the Global South. And we understand that medicines and vaccines are not a commodity. It’s not something to get rich with. It’s something to save people’s lives. And we’re really in favor of sharing technology and of working with people around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, we want to thank you for been with us, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience.
Next up, as the Federal Reserve signals it’s going to raise interest rates, we’ll talk to business reporter Christopher Leonard, author of The Lords of Easy Money. He says the Fed has broken the U.S. economy. Back in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: “This Note’s for You” by Neil Young, who demanded Spotify this week remove his music from its streaming service if it wouldn’t drop the podcast of Joe Rogan, who has repeatedly spread misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. Neil Young said, “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Spotify is removing Neil Young’s music.