Can Cuba beat COVID with its homegrown vaccines?

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Emiliano Rodríguez Mega (Nature) writes, “If everything goes to plan, Cuba could be the first Latin American country to develop and manufacture its own vaccine against COVID-19.”

If everything goes to plan, Cuba could be the first Latin American country to develop and manufacture its own vaccine against COVID-19.

Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director-general of the state-owned Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana, where one of Cuba’s most advanced vaccine candidates was created, thinks the chances are good. The candidate, called Soberana 02, entered phase III trials in people in March. It’s one of the country’s two homegrown vaccines — the other is called Abdala — to make it this far.

And not a moment too soon. Although Cuba had few infections for most of 2020, COVID-19 cases began to rise in the 11-million-person island nation after it reopened its borders to tourism last November. Infections peaked on 24 April, with nearly 5,800 active cases.

Cuba is one of the last-remaining communist countries in the world, and has endured decades of trade embargoes imposed by the United States, cutting off its access to essential supplies. Vérez Bencomo says it is this history that has given the Cuban people an independent streak, spurring them to create their own COVID-19 jab rather than joining the international COVAX initiative, which aims to deliver vaccines fairly across all countries.

Even Soberana 02 has an independent streak, working differently from other vaccines in play. The jab is a ‘conjugate’ vaccine, one that links a weaker antigen with a stronger one to ensure a vigorous immune response. To make Soberana 02, Finlay scientists coupled fragments of the coronavirus spike protein to a deactivated form of tetanus toxin, a powerful antigen that can boost production of immune cells and antibodies.

Nature spoke to Vérez Bencomo about Soberana 02, Cuba’s decision to go solo, and the difficulties of doing science under a forceful economic blockade.

When did Finlay join the COVID-19 vaccine race?

Around May 2020, there was a major call from our president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, for anybody who could develop a vaccine against the coronavirus to do so. It was very important for us. We foresaw that when vaccines were ready [in other parts of the world], it would take a long time for them to reach countries like ours. Of course, by joining the race, we had to abandon other projects. We stopped a clinical trial with a pneumococcus vaccine. We had a very innovative whooping-cough vaccine that we also disrupted. It was not possible to continue doing anything else.

How many different vaccines is Finlay testing right now?

We have three vaccines in the Soberana series. We’re testing Soberana 02 with 44,000 people, some of whom are getting a placebo, in a phase III trial. And because of the urgency, we’re also conducting another effectiveness trial in 75,000 people without placebo. Because not everyone gets vaccinated at the same time, the people waiting for their shot will serve as a control group.

Ethically, it is too late to launch any new placebo studies in Cuba because COVID-19 cases are ramping up. So to test Soberana 01 [a non-conjugate vaccine containing pairs of spike-protein fragments, as well as components from the outer shells of meningococcal bacteria to boost the immune response], we’re designing a protocol to compare it with Soberana 02, instead of using a placebo. We’re awaiting the approval from Cuba’s national regulatory authority to begin the phase II trial.

We also have a trial with 450 convalescent individuals, who recovered from COVID-19 or were asymptomatic, in which we’re testing Soberana Plus, a booster dose that contains spike-protein fragments. This vaccine is designed to re-stimulate the initial immunity people got from a previous infection. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01126-4

Cuba’s long biotech investments could pay off in COVID vaccines
Ruaridh Nicoll, Al Jazeera, May 3, 2021
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/3/cubas-long-biotech-investments-could-pay-off-in-covid-vaccines

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