Cuba: The vaccine vs the media blockade

 by Will Harney

A volunteer is administered the Soberana-01 vaccine

On 20 August the video streaming site YouTube, owned by tech giant Google, suspended the accounts of Cuban media – just as they were reporting rare good news in the Covid-19 global pandemic: the beginning of clinical trials of Cuba’s Soberana-01 vaccine, the first such trials in Latin America. Though the accounts were restored a day later, this censorship is a symptom of the US blockade which has reached fever pitch under the current US administration. Facing an uncertain re-election poll on 3 November, US President Donald Trump is depending more than ever on the support of the right-wing Cuban exile lobby to swing the vote in the key state of Florida. WILL HARNEY reports.

Soberana-01

Cuba has sent 3,700 medical personnel to work in 39 countries to combat the pandemic. Even in an economic crisis brought on by the US blockade, Cuba’s own public health response has been outstanding: at the time of writing, total infections in Cuba stood at 5,270 with 118 deaths and 4,462 recoveries; a death rate of 1 per 100,000 population. Britain’s rate is 63 per 100,000. At the same time, Cuban scientists have been working flat-out to produce a vaccine.1

On 17 July 2020, just five months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a pandemic, scientists at the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana produced the first doses of a vaccine candidate they dubbed ‘Soberana-01’ (‘Sovereign-01’). The Finlay Institute, named after influential Cuban epidemiologist Dr Carlos Finlay (1833-1915), is a biomedical centre founded in 1991 by doctors who were instrumental in developing a 1988 vaccine against meningitis B which helped eliminate the disease from the island.

As of 20 August, there were 30 Covid-19 vaccine candidates in the world approved for clinical trials according to the WHO. The Soberana-01 vaccine candidate contains receptor-binding domain (RBD) protein, which is used by the S-protein ‘spikes’ on the surface of coronaviruses (which give the viruses their crown-like appearance under a microscope, hence the name ‘corona’) as a ‘key’ to allow it to enter human and bat respiratory cells. Besides a Chinese vaccine candidate, Soberana-01 is the only one to use RBD as an antigen; recent Chinese studies identify RBD as ‘as the most likely target for the development of virus attachment inhibitors, neutralizing antibodies, and vaccines’.2

As Cuba was prevented by the US blockade from buying various recombinant proteins vital to testing the vaccine, the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM) had to produce these domestically as well as isolating the RBD protein. CIM is equipped with the technology necessary for this work, and for mass production of a vaccine, because Cuba has spent decades investing in its biotechnology sector to be more self-sufficient in the production of medicine.3 The blockade makes it more vital that Cuba produces its own vaccine so that its strategy to fight the virus in Cuba and elsewhere is not dependent on agreements with other countries. Given Cuba’s internationalist approach to healthcare, the creation of a vaccine would benefit not only Cubans but people throughout the world.

In a mere seven weeks, Cuban scientists designed and produced a vaccine ready to be assessed for human trials. The phase I trials will administer Soberana-01 to 40 volunteers between 19 and 80 years old to establish whether it is safe. Phase II trials will establish if the antigen is producing sufficient antibodies in 676 volunteers, due to be complete by end of November. If these trials are successful, the trials will move to phase III, testing in a population of thousands of volunteers to see if it is effective in stopping the spread of the disease. If it is, the vaccine can be officially approved for use. In pre-clinical trials, Soberana-01 was observed to successfully produce an immune response in mice and rabbits. If Cuba develops the first, safest or most effective Covid-19 vaccine, US sanctions which prevent US citizens and others in the world from benefiting from it will look increasingly unsustainable.

Full-spectrum blockade

US imperialism can count on the traditional news media, including the British media, to both attack Cuba and ignore its achievements. Few will have heard of Soberana-01 from mainstream news outlets – instead we are told only of shortages, queues and other difficulties afflicting Cuba, problems which are rarely placed in the context of an intensifying blockade. On 5 September Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced on Twitter the deafening silence of the media, particularly on the development of the first vaccine candidate for clinical trials in Latin America, the world’s worst-affected region with around 8.4 million coronavirus cases, and over 314,000 deaths: ‘Cuban scientists share their progress with the world, show protocols against the pandemic and results of their own vaccine candidate. However, little information about this is shared. The [coverage of Cuba] is biased. Ignoring or censoring successes is part of the media blockade’.

The internet and social media is a different battleground, both a threat and an opportunity in which the US state has invested heavily in order to dominate.4 Cuba has been developing its network infrastructure – in partnership with Google – allowing Cubans to access sites like YouTube affordably. Both Cubans and an international audience can watch Cuban media programmes on YouTube, including the three whose Google accounts were suddenly suspended on 20 August because, according to the messages they received from Google, they ‘violate export laws’: CubaDebate’s Mesa Redonda programme; the channel of Granma (newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party); and state channel Cubavisión Internacional. These outlets, which between them have 35,000+ subscribers, have provided regular updates on the Cuban government’s response to Covid-19.

This comes as a Washington DC- based PR firm, CLS Strat­egies, was found operating a disinformation network on Facebook and Instagram undermining Cuba’s allies in Latin America (The Grayzone, 6 September). CLS Strategies created fake accounts to promote Venezuela’s right-wing opposition and the fascist coup administration of Jeanine Añez in Bolivia. It is staffed by officials with links to the US government including a former director of Latin American policy in the Obama administration. It spent $3.6m on targeted ads to promote its propaganda on Facebook. A partner in the firm, Juan Cortiñas, has links to Florida’s Cuban exile lobby which is pushing Trump to suffocate Cuba further.

Satisfying the exile lobby

Minimising Cuba’s achievements and isolating it from the rest of Latin America are part of Trump’s strategy to strengthen US imperialism’s hold over ‘its hemisphere’. On 9 September, Trump, with a flick of his presidential pen, renewed the provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act until 14 September 2021. Socialist Cuba is the only country in the world currently sanctioned under this 1917 law, resurrected in 1962, that allows the president to restrict trade with enemies in wartime. The six-decade US blockade of Cuba is like a constant state of warfare, but Trump’s presidency, itself up for expiry soon, has taken this to a new pitch (see FRFI 270). A Trump win in 2020 could see further tightening of the US blockade for at least another four years.

Trump is counting on the support of the right-wing Cuban exile lobby to win over Hispanic voters in Florida, a key swing state. Although he did not choose her in the end, Trump’s latest gesture to the exile kingmakers was to consider Barbara Lagoa as a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who died on 18 September. Lagoa, a Court of Appeals judge, is a first-generation Cuban-American whose parents fled to the US following the socialist revolution; when appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in 2019, Lagoa told reporters that her father had to give up his ‘dream of becoming a lawyer’ because of Fidel Castro. She was on the legal team that worked pro bono on behalf of the exile lobby – unsuccessfully – to prevent six-year-old Elián González being returned to his family in Cuba in 2000 (see FRFI 153). ‘She’s an extraordinary person,’ Trump says. Mauricio Claver-Carone, another right-wing Cuban American, was nominated by Trump then elected on 12 September as president of the Inter-American Development Bank – the first US citizen to run the development finance institution in its 60-year history.

Isolate imperialism!

Democrat contender Joe Biden promises to ‘promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.’ In two interviews with Americas Quarterly (14 December 2018 and 4 March 2020), Biden set out his position on Cuba as just another version of the Monroe Doctrine, characterised by a concern that the US is isolating itself and should adopt a softer foreign policy to maintain exclusive ‘leadership in the Western Hemisphere’: ‘Our geopolitical rivals [China and Russia] are eagerly filling the vacuum of leadership as the United States pulls back’ … ‘It is the current absence of American leadership in the Western Hemisphere that is the primary threat to US national security.’

Due to Cuba’s committed internationalism, especially in the fight against Covid-19, Trump’s hostility and sanctions are not winning friends in the region or the world at large. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said of Cuba: ‘They are lifesavers. In some Caribbean countries, they constitute the backbone of the response to the pandemic.’ For 28 consecutive years, the UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US blockade of Cuba; though this year’s vote has been postponed until March 2021 due to alarming rates of Covid-19 in New York where the Assembly meets.

While a Biden win cannot be relied upon to halt other forms of attack on Cuba, such as sanctions against its ally Venezuela that started under the Obama administration, it might alleviate the economic and commercial blockade. But as long as Cuba remains socialist, the US will never respect its right to self-determination regardless of which ruling class party holds the White House. The best weapon against the media blockade is to spread information on Cuba’s achievements in fighting Covid-19 and defend its example of a socialist society wherever we can.


1. This article draws on information from OnCubaNews.com, 25 August 2020.
2. ‘Characterization of the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of 2019 novel coronavirus: implication for development of RBD protein as a viral attachment inhibitor and vaccine’ Cellular & Molecular Immunology volume 17, pages 613–620 (2020) cited at OnCubaNews.com, 25 August 2020.
3. For more information on Cuba’s biotechnology sector, see Helen Yaffe, We Are Cuba! Yale University Press (2020) available to order at www.frfi.org.uk
4. See ‘As Cuba goes online, the US plans subversion’, 27 May 2018 on our website.

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