Image: Workers at Havana’s airport prepare a shipment of a Cuban COVID-19 vaccine headed to Syria. Source: Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images.
The government of Cuba has been planning an economic comeback with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is considering emergency approval of one to four of Cuba’s five locally-produced COVID-19 vaccines. Cuba’s vaccine development helps explain why it has embarked on fierce repression after mass protests last July and why the country has refrained from needed economic reforms to alleviate its economic crisis.
The WHO and its regional representative, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), were early cheerleaders of its decision to start developing five COVID-19 vaccines in early 2020. Historically, both organizations have accepted Cuba’s reported data while disregarding conflicting information from independent sources and experts not beholden to Cuba’s authoritarian government.
Cuba already produces and commercializes several vaccines, and its friends and allies dismiss reports of systematic data manipulation and purchase its medical products and services uncompetitively. Moreover, few outside of Cuba know that many citizens, including numerous health workers, died during the COVID-19 spike of 2021 despite having the required three doses of the local vaccines. Emergency approval by the WHO precludes long-term evaluation of effectiveness or side effects, and large-scale production risks are only obvious a posteriori.
Far-left outlets have heralded Cuba’s “unique model of vaccine internationalism” on “behalf of the world’s poor,” as mainstream media including NPR, Bloomberg, NBC, CNBC, ABC, and The Washington Post herald Cuba’s so-called achievements and intentions uncritically. Unfortunately, the global poor won’t be fully informed about the WHO-approved Cuban vaccine—they’ve lacked protection and recourse for decades while Cuba’s “internationalist” doctors are allowed to practice in scores of countries with unverified credentials despite questionable training.
Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines are of the traditional protein sub-unit type, composed of a fraction of the SARS-CoV-2 S protein, and its biotech industry produces eight such vaccines, some of which are exported. Cuba’s biotech industry is a state-sponsored monopoly, it operates with a weak legal and regulatory framework, lacks transparency and adequate sanitary standards, and conducts aberrant clinical trials as well as other unethical medical practices. Despite exporting products to 40 countries, it pays its employees miserly wages in worthless local currency. Finally, U.S. foreign policy officials and intelligence agencies suspect that Cuba conceals a bio-warfare program.
The Cuban government diverted resources for essential and life-saving medication needed in real-time to engage in a risky production of five different vaccine candidates to treat a new virus in competition with top global bio-pharmaceutical conglomerates. In January the president of the state-owned BioCubaFarma conglomerate explained why medication was extremely scarce for most citizens. He confirmed that the state had diverted 50 percent of the financing needed to import raw materials and inputs for the local production of drugs in order to develop and produce vaccines against COVID-19 and drugs in the virus treatment protocol, apparently available only to the nomenklatura and hard currency-paying tourists.
Cuba also plans to expand COVID-19 vaccine production through third-country technology transfer and has already negotiated such agreements with Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Argentina. This development would translate into new partnerships in biotechnology, further increasing its global influence. Government authorities have said that Cuba could produce 120 to 200 million doses a year, which at USD $5 per dose—more than what bulk AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines have cost some countries—would generate minimum gross annual revenues of $600 million to $1 billion. Earnings would greatly multiply from higher per-dose rates, increased productive capacity, third-country production, support services, and medical brigades sent by Cuba as part of the vaccine package.
The medical brigades are part of a rare state business, which the U.S. Department of State, among others, considers a form of trafficking in persons in violation of international law. Presented as humanitarian “collaboration,” the brigades generate export services officially constituting Cuba’s primary source of revenues. Furthermore, they are used to bolster populist regimes to help masquerade clandestine deployments of Cuban intelligence and military personnel. Cuba used this formula to spread its brand in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, which poses a grave threat to the region.
The flood of revenues would fund the Cuban regime’s vast apparatus for repression, propaganda, and intelligence, which operates internally and internationally. It would enable Cuba’s leaders to remain in power and continue expanding their international influence.
COVID-19 vaccines and related exports cannot ultimately rescue the faltering Cuban economy, and the local biotechnology industry lacks critical aspects for long-term, sustained growth. However, in the short-to-medium term, vaccine sales would greatly strengthen the dictatorship, neutralize the consequences of its extensive human rights abuses, and postpone the ultimate reckoning of its failed system. Vaccine sales would also defuse pressure for urgent economic reforms that would improve the lives of the suffering Cuban people, and they would weaken the pro-democracy movement.
The possibility of this alarming scenario calls for full transparency and careful oversight of the WHO vaccine evaluation process, as well as of the WHO and PAHO programs in Cuba. Vaccine approval should be conditioned on an in-depth evaluation of Cuba’s bio-pharmaceutical industry by an independent board of experts conducting unannounced, random visits to any laboratory, production plant, or health institution in Cuba. Additionally, the WHO and PAHO should interview émigré medical personnel not subject to reprisal from the Cuban state.
Medical and other civil society organizations of countries contemplating biotech purchases from Cuba should demand that their governments carefully address all of the above concerns. Procurement of any approved Cuban vaccines by any government or international organization, particularly GAVI, should be fair and transparent.
Finally, democratic governments should discontinue funding the Cuban government and any of its entities with loans or aid and, instead, channel humanitarian assistance through churches and verifiable independent groups, as well as support human rights initiatives.
Maria C. Werlau is the Executive Director of the non-profit CubaArchive.org.