Sat | May 15, 2021

Editorial | Do more than buy vaccine from Cuba

Published:Friday | January 15, 2021 | 12:12 AM

It took a long time for Jamaica’s Government to come around to the obvious. Nonetheless, we welcome its intention to seek bilateral agreements to acquire COVID-19 vaccines from other developing countries that are developing drugs against the virus. The health minister, Christopher Tufton, identified China, India and Cuba as being on his radar for such deals.

“The idea is to see to what extent any sort of government-to-government arrangement would allow us access to some of their vaccines coming out of those countries where manufacturing takes place,” Dr Tufton told this newspaper this week.

But even as we applaud this move, we believe that the Holness administration should do more than seek buyer-seller relationships. There is an opening, we feel, to pursue research and development (R&D) partnerships in biotechnology, especially with Jamaica’s closest neighbour, Cuba.

With rich nations – even before the first drop of inoculation was manufactured – having largely cornered the market for COVID-19 vaccines developed by Western pharmaceutical companies, Jamaica, like most developing countries, pinned its hope for access to these drugs on the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative. That project is aimed at ensuring that poor countries are not locked out of effective treatment for the pandemic. But even at that, developing countries are assured of deliveries only in the second phase of production, after the initial orders of the major economies are met.

Jamaica’s Shipment Insufficient

In Jamaica’s case, shipment of a vaccine developed by the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Oxford University should begin arriving by April. However, undertakings under the COVAX initiative is for sufficient doses for only around 480,000 people, or 16 per cent of Jamaica’s population.

Epidemiologists, however, say that at least 60 per cent of the population – and probably over 70 per cent – will have to be vaccinated to reach a level of immunity that ends the spread of the disease. It is in order to reach this higher threshold that Jamaica is now looking around for bilateral deals with the countries identified, all of which have vaccines in various stages of development.

China, for instance, has several vaccines in late-stage trials, but has begun providing doses to critical segments of its population ahead of a mass vaccination programme. In India, a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has been approved for emergency use by that country’s government. A home-grown product, developed by the biotechnology outfit Bharat Biotech, has similarly been approved for use. Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute has four promising drugs in late-stage trials, with its Soberana (Sovereign) 2A being the most advanced.

Cuba is Jamaica’s closest neighbour, a mere 90 miles to its north. It has one of Latin America’s best healthcare systems and among the hemisphere’s most advanced biotech industries. It is a Latin American leader in vaccine development. Significantly, too, Jamaica, through its membership in the Caribbean Community, has a bilateral trade and economic cooperation agreement with Cuba.

It is against the backdrop of these factors, and in particular the latter, that this newspaper has twice, since late December, even when Dr Tufton was reticent about acquiring vaccines from Havana, urged Jamaica towards an R&D pact with Cuba’s biotech sector, including on vaccines. The Mona campus of the regional University of the West Indies and/or the national University of Technology, or a special-purpose consortium of these and other institutions and agencies, could pursue such a project. Not only might it lead to Jamaica having early access to promising coronavirus vaccines and other inoculations, but it would be a fillip to science and technology development in this country. This would be a partnership with a country of the South that shares with Jamaica many of the constraints of underdevelopment.

The relevance of this perspective was underlined last week in the agreement between Cuba and Iran for Tehran’s Pasteur Institute to produce Havana’s COVID-19 vaccines and for the Iranians to be part of the late-stage research and testing of the drugs. The Cuba-Iran agreement has been viewed, in some quarters, merely in an ideological context – of two countries under sanctions by the United States finding common cause and thumbing their noses at the USA.

Our preferred context is of two countries of limited development pooling their resources and leveraging each other’s skills to their mutual advantage. That is the context that Jamaica should have with respect to our proposal.