May 6, 2021

How Cuba Beat the Pandemic: From Developing New Vaccines to Sending Doctors Overseas to Help Others

14 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: As the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 tops 560,000 and Brazil records over 4,200 deaths in a single day, we begin today’s show looking at how Cuba has successfully fought the pandemic. Since last year, only about 440 Cubans have died from COVID-19, giving the island one of the lowest death rates per capita in the world. Cuba is also developing five COVID-19 vaccines, including two which have entered stage 3 trials. Martinez is the president of BioCubaFarma..

EDUARDO MARTÍNEZ DÍAZ: [translated] We are very confident that our vaccines will be effective, the vaccines that are being developed. The results that we have had to date point to satisfactory results. And we maintain that before the end of 2021, our population will be immunized with the vaccines that we’re developing. … Given the blockade that we are subjected to and the situation in the country, it would have been very difficult for us to get the results that we are getting in the fight against the pandemic, if we had not developed this industry more than 35 years ago in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: For decades, Cuba has heavily invested in its medical and pharmaceutical system, in part because of the six-decade-old U.S. embargo that’s made it harder for Cuba to import equipment and raw materials from other countries. In the 1980s, Cuba developed the world’s first meningitis B vaccine. It’s also developed important cancer drugs that are now being used in the United States and elsewhere.
In a moment, we’ll go to Havana, but first I want to turn to an excerpt from the recent online documentary series The War on Cuba, produced by Belly of the Beast, an independent media group in Cuba. One episode looks at Cuba’s efforts to fight COVID-19 at home and abroad. It’s narrated by the Cuban journalist Liz Oliva Fernández.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: Every morning, tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and medical students take to the streets across Cuba. They are on the frontlines of our fight against COVID. Talía Ruíz is a first-year medical student.

TALÍA RUÍZ: [translated] I don’t feel afraid. If we are careful and take the necessary measures, we won’t get infected. There are doctors who have faced the disease head on, and they haven’t gotten sick. For example, my dad. Hi, Dad.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: Talía’s father, Juan Jesús, is a family doctor who works at a small clinic next to their home. In March, he joined a group of Cuban doctors on a medical mission to Lombardy, Italy. At the time, Lombardy was the global epicenter of the pandemic.

DR. JUAN JESÚS RUIZ ALEMÁN: [translated] The number of cases overwhelmed the health system there. We helped the medical personnel who could no longer handle so many cases. And we saved some lives. As we walked to the farewell ceremony, from every home, people came out and applauded us. It was the best feeling I’ve had in my life. That’s why you go on missions.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: It wasn’t the first time Juan Jesús risked his life far from home. He’s part of the Henry Reeve Brigade, Cuba’s medical special forces.

DR. JUAN JESÚS RUIZ ALEMÁN: [translated] Henry Reeve was a soldier from the United States who fought for Cuba against the Spanish in the 1868 war. The brigade was formed in 2005. A hurricane called Katrina destroyed New Orleans. There was a huge number of deaths. Cuba offered to send 100 doctors to work alongside U.S. doctors. We were ready to go.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: George W. Bush rejected Cuba’s offer to help New Orleans. Since then, Juan Jesús has treated survivors of natural disasters and epidemics around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the video series The War on Cuba, which was produced by Belly of the Beast, an independent media organization in Cuba founded by journalist Reed Lindsay, who joins us from Havana, where we’re also joined by Dr. Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, the director of science and innovation at BioCubaFarma, which oversees Cuba’s medicine development, including the development of COVID-19 vaccines. He’s also the founder of Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center and a member of the Cuban Academy of Science.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dr. Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, why don’t you talk about the latest vaccines, two of which are in trial three? Soberana-2 is one of them.
DR. ROLANDO PÉREZ RODRÍGUEZ: Good morning. I would like to thank you for this invitation to share with you our experience in facing COVID-19 pandemics.
I have to say that we had the first case of COVID-19 in Cuba, was reported on March 11, [ 2020 ]. And in April this [last] year, we decided to start this COVID vaccine project, different several vaccine — a COVID-19 vaccine project. And in August 13, we already got the first approval to start a Phase 1 clinical trial with the first vaccine candidate. So, in a very short time, we succeeded to get to clinical development of this candidate vaccine.
Today, we have, as you said, five different vaccine candidates in clinical development, two of them in Phase 3 clinical trials. Three of these, in all of the — sorry. All of these candidate vaccines use as anti the receptor-binding domain of the S5 protein, which bind to the surface receptor, so this anti is expressed in different technology platforms. Three of the vaccines use the recombinant protein produced in mammalian cells, and the other two in geese. But all of these vaccines we are developing now, we use a platform technology that are very safe, are [inaudible] vaccines. All the formulation also benefit from all the technology we have used in Cuba for a previous prophylactic vaccine, so are very safe. We have long experience with these kind of technologies. And that’s the reason we can really go so far through a clinical development.
AMY GOODMAN: Cuba will be the first country in Latin America to develop vaccines, this despite the U.S. embargo. Can you talk about how these — why you think Cuba is so far ahead?
DR. ROLANDO PÉREZ RODRÍGUEZ: No, maybe I have to say that we — in Cuba, we made a huge investment, you know, in biotechnology last century. By the ’80s of last century, we had started developing a biotech industry, so early maybe. And then, in combination with a healthcare system that, you know, is free, is universal, full coverage, and this combination of a biotech industry and a good health primary care system, I think that that combination made possible to assimilate or have impact of all these biotech products in the healthcare and provide us the experience and the capacity to make so fast the development of these vaccine projects and to introduce in the healthcare system.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Cuba has far surpassed the United States when it comes to COVID-19 and people surviving? I mean, the U.S. — I mean, per capita, I think Cuba has something like, over the year, between 40 and 60 times less the death toll per capita than the United States. How is this possible, with the U.S. being the wealthiest country in the world and the U.S. imposing this massive embargo against Cuba, which is not only stopping U.S. support for Cuba, but countries around the world?
DR. ROLANDO PÉREZ RODRÍGUEZ: You know, it’s what I tried to explain before. There is a combination of a national pharmaceutical — biopharmaceutical industry, but also how we organize the healthcare system in Cuba, that is free, universal, full coverage, with access to all the population, and also this health primary care system that is looking for people with disease. So, we are not expecting that people come to the healthcare system; we are looking for the people, so it’s a very active and preventive approach to the healthcare. And I think that this kind of organization made possible that with not so much resources, you can have a big impact on healthcare. That is the reason maybe, the way we organize all this healthcare system.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring journalist Reed Lindsay into this conversation, who has put out this series, founder of Belly of the Beast, called The War on Cuba. If you can talk about, overall, during the time of COVID, even beyond the vaccines, what Cuba has done, what you document in your film series, like sending doctors to places like Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and beyond?
REED LINDSAY: Thanks a lot, Amy.
You know, I was in Haiti for five years, and that was my first direct experience with Cuban doctors. And I found it remarkable. What the Cuban program in Haiti was doing wasn’t only bringing Cuban doctors to work in the poorest areas of Haiti, it was also training Haitian doctors in Cuba. And Cuba, at that time, was graduating more doctors than the public universities in Haiti, and they were returning to Haiti and working there. And, in a sense, it was brain drain in reverse.
And living here in Cuba, you know, my doctor is just a block or two away. If I have any problem, I walk down there. It’s free. I don’t have to show any papers. And that’s what it’s like for healthcare here. It can be a little shocking not having to go in and fill out forms and showing your insurance and anything.
And, of course, when COVID hit, I knew that Cuba would be prepared. And I felt safer here, frankly, a lot safer, than I did if I had been in the United States. I remember telling my mom, who has often been worried about different places I’ve been around the world — I told her now I was more worried about her than she was about me.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another excerpt from your film, The War on Cuba, about Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro expelling thousands of Cuban doctors in 2018.

DR. MARIO DÍAZ: [translated] Bolsonaro has always followed the U.S. president. They call him the Latino Trump. The U.S. wants to cut off the income to choke the Cuban economy, to try to bring about a political change here on the island. When Cuba left the program, around 1,700 municipalities were suddenly left without doctors. I had a patient in Brazil, a 70-year-old man, illiterate. He made an appointment so he could say goodbye. He cried right here on my shoulder.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: Millions of Brazilians in poor communities were left without healthcare. It was just the beginning. Ecuador’s president became a Trump ally, and then, in November 2019, he expelled hundreds of Cuban doctors. That same month, a U.S.-supported coup ousted Bolivian President Evo Morales. Bolivia’s de facto government immediately took aim at the Cuban doctors.

INTERIM PRESIDENT JEANINE ÁÑEZ: [translated] The false Cuban doctors …

DR. YOANDRA MURO VALLE: [translated] They said we weren’t doctors. They accused us of being criminals.

LIZ OLIVA FERNÁNDEZ: Yoandra Muro was head of the Cuban medical mission in Bolivia.

DR. YOANDRA MURO VALLE: [translated] They threatened to burn down the Cuban doctors’ homes. They took others to Interpol. They pointed guns at two brigade members. They strip-searched some of our women.

AMY GOODMAN: That, an excerpt from The War on Cuba, Reed Lindsay, a founder of the Belly of the Beast production that made this series. Now, this is very interesting, what’s happening in Brazil. And if you can talk about the effects of this? I mean, we just reported that 4,200 people died in Brazil just yesterday. That’s over 10 times the number of Cubans who have died during the entire pandemic.
REED LINDSAY: Yeah, you know, and in doing the series, we spoke with numerous doctors who were part of — Cuban doctors who were in Brazil. And they were hurting, because they knew that these communities that they were helping, they weren’t able to help, and that they were suffering. People were dying of COVID.
You know, what that is was part of Trump’s policies to crush the Cuban economy, because Cuba sends doctors to other parts of the world, and, like Haiti, there are many cases where there’s really no evidence it’s anything but altruistic, but it also sends doctors to places like Brazil, and Cuba receives some money for that, and they use that money to subsidize healthcare in Cuba. And so, the Trump administration went after these programs to try to basically hurt the Cuban economy. And it wasn’t the only thing they’ve done.
What’s really remarkable about the vaccines and what Cuba has achieved in the last year is that Cuba right now is undergoing a severe economic crisis, and in part it’s because of COVID. Obviously, there’s no more tourism, and Cuba depended greatly on tourism for its economy. But even before then, there were people who were comparing the economic situation in Cuba to the Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was considered worse than the Great Depression. And the reason was because of the U.S. sanctions. Now, the embargo has been around for decades, but Trump — under Trump, those sanctions became far, far worse.
And, you know, that’s really the story we were trying to tell with The War on Cuba. And I feel it’s important to point out that this is a project — what’s really unique about Belly of the Beast — and I’m very proud of being a part of it — is that it is a collaboration between U.S. journalists and filmmakers and Cuban journalists and filmmakers. Most of the people in Belly of the Beast are young Cuban journalists and filmmakers. They’re telling stories about U.S. intervention in Cuba for a young audience in the United States. And we feel that’s really important because people in the United States are at the forefront of pushing for change in policy in the U.S., but they don’t always get information about the impact of U.S. policy in other parts of the world, such as Cuba, not only how that policy is affecting Cubans, but also how that policy affects people in the U.S. And you cited an example earlier. Cuba produces life-saving drugs that cannot be obtained in the United States because of the U.S. embargo.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Dr. Rolando Pérez Rodríguez. What plans does Cuba have for your vaccines, like Soberana? How do you plan to use it? And as with doctors, do you plan to export this vaccine? And how many people have participated in trials in Cuba?
DR. ROLANDO PÉREZ RODRÍGUEZ: OK, you know, we are expecting to get the result of the first three clinical trials by June. So, if we have ready the clinical data for the efficacy of these vaccines, we should get an authorization for emergency use from the Cuban regulatory agency. And then we can start a massive immunization program in our country.
But, in parallel, you know, with these first three clinical trials, that involve more than 80,000 people — because Soberana candidate vaccine, or vaccine candidate, has a clinical trial that should include more than 44,000 people, and the other vaccine, candidate vaccine, Abdala, has a clinical trial that should include 48,000 volunteers. But in parallel to these first three clinical trials, we are also making clinical histories of population scale in risk groups, population groups, for example, the healthcare workers, all people that are facing the disease directly. And then, in this personnel — medical doctors, nurses and employees — we are also now making a clinical history. All this data from Phase 3 and the clinical data in this population, a clinical history, that is like real work, because in that kind of history, you will not only the efficacy, but also how effective will be the vaccine in somehow stop the viral transmission, not just preventing the disease. We should have an update up by June to have this emergency use authorization from the Cuban regulatory agency.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the U.S. — I want to go to the U.S. administration approach to Cuba. During his campaign, President Biden promised to lift current restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba. But it remains unclear if he’s going to pursue resetting relationships with the island. Last month, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said a shift in U.S. policy on Cuba is not a priority for Biden, adding his administration is reviewing Trump’s designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. This is Biden speaking to a crowd in Broward County, Florida, just days before the 2020 presidential election.

JOE BIDEN: We have to vote for a new Cuba policy, as well. This administration’s approach isn’t working. Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy today than it was four years ago. In fact, there are more political prisoners, and secret police are as brutal as ever. And Russia once again is a major presence in Havana.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Biden right before the election. Of course, during the Obama-Biden years, they were normalizing relations with Cuba. Reed Brody [sic], we’re going to end with you — Reed Lindsay, we’re going to end with you. If you can talk about what the effect of these U.S. sanctions has been on Cuba, and what it would mean if those sanctions were lifted?
REED LINDSAY: As you mentioned, Cuba is going through an unbelievable economic crisis. And the sanctions have been absolutely devastating, and they’ve taken on every part of the Cuban economy. They’ve blocked oil shipments from Venezuela. There was an energy crisis in Cuba. They’ve blocked remittances. If you wanted to send me some money in Cuba, you wouldn’t be able to do so. You no longer can send money via Western Union. They’ve basically stopped all investment. They’ve called Cuba a state sponsor of terror. They’ve stopped all U.S. tourism. Even if there wasn’t COVID, there would be no U.S. tourists coming here.
And basically, Biden, although he said that he was going to implement a new Cuban policy, has not shown that he will. And just yesterday, Juan Gonzalez, who is the — basically, for the National Security Council that runs point on Latin American policy, told CNN, quote, “Biden is not Obama in Cuba policy.” And he said that Biden would — that the administration would not invest the political capital necessary to change policy towards Cuba. The Biden administration is being pressured by powerful Cuban Americans. Two Cuban Americans are the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They’re getting a lot of pressure, and they’re just not interested in changing policy. At least so far, they’ve shown they’re not. So, so far, it’s status quo as far as policy towards Cuba.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Reed Lindsay, journalist and founder of Belly of the Beast, independent media organization that covers Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations, also the director of The War on Cuba series, which is executive produced by Danny Glover and Oliver Stone; and Dr. Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, the director of science and innovation at BioCubaFarma. He’s also the founder of Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center, a member of the Cuban Academy of Science.
Coming up, we stay in the Americas. We’ll be talking to the director, the Americas director, of Amnesty International about how the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and driven migration north across the hemisphere. Stay with us.
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AMY GOODMAN: “The Strength of a Country” by Cuban band Buena Fe. The song is dedicated to the Cuban doctors.