Ronald Sanders | US-Cuba normalisation could increase production of COVID-19 vaccines
If United States President Joe Biden eases the trade embargo against Cuba, one benefit to developing countries, including the Caribbean, could be greater access to coronavirus vaccines at an affordable price.
Cuban scientists have been working on four vaccine candidates to counter the virus. They believe that their most successful candidate, Sovereign 2, will enter a final phase of testing next month.
Vicente Vérez, 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 coronavirus 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.
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. 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.
EASE THE PRESSURE
Cuba’s geographical location in the Caribbean, and its 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 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 COVAX facility, established by the World Health Organization 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 doses 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 $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.
HUMAN RIGHTS DISREGARDED
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 World Health Organization (WHO) authorisation after successful testing.
While he was campaigning for the US presidency, Joe Biden pledged to reverse sanctions placed on Cuba by former President 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.
About 20 churches and religious organisations in the US also sent a letter on 17 February, to President Biden asking that the decision to include Cuba on the list of States sponsoring terrorism to 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 represent opposition, most of whom want nothing less than the immediate collapse of the Cuban government.
President 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 and the OAS. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. For responses and previous commentaries log on to www.sirronaldsanders.com