Havana, Cuba – There is a health clinic on every corner in Havana, each with a family doctor and nurse.
Over the past few weeks, these health workers have been visiting their patients in the Cuban capital, from the floors – Buildings similar to Warren where entire families live in single rooms – to smarter apartments in decadent art deco buildings where memories of wealth are still displayed in large windows overlooking the Florida Strait.
Residents were told the coronavirus vaccine was coming in and giving them appointments for the shots. This scene has been repeated throughout the city, and – as long as there are enough syringes to administer the doses – will soon be repeated throughout the country.
In the history of the pandemic, Cuba begins this new chapter on a rock. After spending 2020 keeping the virus largely off its shores, the number of infected patients is now growing rapidly, with a new record of 2,698 cases daily on Saturday, and an average of seven days now over 2,000. Cuba is facing the biggest wave in the Caribbean.
However, last week the country announced that Abdala, one of five vaccines Cuba has created in its laboratories – an immensely impressive success for an 11 million-strong country with catastrophically depleted resources – has an efficiency of 92.28 percent. This compares to 95 percent of Pfizer-BioNTech, 95 percent of Modern and 76 percent of AstraZeneca.
Earlier this month he said another of his vaccines, Soberana-02, had an efficacy of 62 percent after two doses. On Thursday, his scientists said a booster would bring this between 85 and 95 percent (Abdala also comes in three shots).
Warnings followed harshly on the heels of the numbers, which could change in the face of new variations. Nationally, the vaccines have been tested on a population that has so far been untreated by a serious COVID-19 wave, and have not yet been subjected to international control.
“I have no reason to believe that there is fraud or manipulation,” said Amílcar Pérez Riverol, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology at São Paulo State University in Brazil and a veteran of Cuba’s laboratories. “This is biotechnological and eventually general vaccination will show how effective they are. But like any member of the scientific community, I would love to see the data.”
In Havana, where the population is increasingly frightened by the rising rate of infections, the results of efficacy have caused widespread joy. “After such a hard year of queuing and food shortages, it’s so good to have something to celebrate,” said one woman who left the local doctor’s clinic last week.
The news also rekindled the 9 a.m. applause for Cuban employees. Cubans – who venerate their health service – have maintained their daily applause for months, until it finally comes under the strain of everyday life. There are currently food and medicine shortages and rampant inflation. And then there are the growing number of infected patients.
At the onset of the pandemic, the Cuban government saw an opportunity to demonstrate its impressive health service, the “advantages” of authoritarian government, and a biotech industry that Fidel Castro always believed the country could excel at. .
Current of Cuba President Miguel Díaz-Canel he invited the country’s laboratories to come up with what he called “a sovereign response to COVID-19”.
Only there was an economic crisis unfolding at the same time, that tourists disappeared and the economy contracted by 11 per cent. The government was struggling to pay its international bills as the US sought to make it increasingly difficult for expatriate Cubans to send money home.
In November, authorities under pressure opened borders and allowed people to enter. A day earlier Cuba had 27 new homes and the United States had 159,003. Soon after, the numbers in Cuba began to grow and as of Sunday, there were 13,213 active cases in the country (more than for the whole of 2020) and 1,253 deaths due to the virus.
In May, Marilyn Salazar Martínez, 33, heard that they were testing the Soberana-02 vaccine in her neighborhood in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado. “They were looking for people over 60 but I went to the doctor and they agreed to take me anyway.”
She said she did not know if she was getting the vaccine or a placebo. “I wanted the opportunity to be vaccinated first, but also to be part of the search for a solution,” he told Al Jazeera.
Shortly after receiving his second injection, his partner tested positive. “I think I’ll be infected too,” he said. After his admission to the hospital, a doctor came and gave him a PCR test, which was negative.
“Three weeks later, after his return home, they confirmed that I had the vaccination,” he said. “There’s no way to know if it was just luck or vaccine that prevented me from catching COVID, but since we live together, it seems to be the vaccine.”
Lack of syringes
According to Cuban authorities, 2.2 million Cubans received their first doses of vaccines, with just under 1 million receiving the required three shots. Cuba hopes to fully protect its population this year.
As family after family now moves into their clinics or workplaces to get vaccinated, a new problem has emerged: a growing concern about the lack of syringes. Because these vaccines require three doses, Cuba’s need is greater than that of other countries.
An international campaign has been launched to supply the island, led by the Cuban diaspora and international solidarity movements. Global Health Partners (GHP), a non-profit group outside of New York, has started a campaign to address a deficiency of what they say is 20 million syringes. “Today, we have acquired four million syringes. We hope to get two million more, ”said Bob Schwartz, vice president of GHP at Al Jazeera.
What no one cares about, however, is Cuba’s ability to put the vaccine in people’s arms. “Even at the beginning, I knew that implementation would not be the problem, because the primary care system in Cuba is quite effective,” Pérez Riverol said.
Gregory Biniowsky is a Canadian lawyer and long-term resident who received the Abdala vaccine at a school in Havana’s Plaza Vieja. “There were six medical staff here. The nurse said there could be symptoms similar to the flu and a bit of muscle pain, and that’s exactly what I had. ”
Biniowsky believes that not only will Cuba become the most vaccinated country in Latin America in the next six months, but there will be no reluctance on vaccination seen in some other countries, including the United States or Russia.
“It’s for three reasons,” he said. “One is the kind of conspiracy movement that exists in other countries just doesn’t exist here. Then there’s the strong belief in science. And the last thing is, I don’t think people get any option.”
Cuba has eight doctors for every 1,000 of its people, three times that of the United Kingdom or the United States. They know where their patients live.