Cuba’s Improbable Medical Prowess in Asia
Cuba is developing a foothold in Asia with its biotechnology. COVID-19 is likely to expand that cooperation still further
By Tom Fawthrop
April 24, 2020
In stark contrast to the medical nationalism of the United States and some other Western countries, a small Caribbean nation has emerged as a beacon of international solidarity in the global war against the coronavirus. Cuba has set an improbable record, sending medical teams to 19 countries in less than two weeks.
In spite of crippling U.S. sanctions, Cuba has still succeeded in playing a key role in the war against COVID-19. They have sent new medical teams to 19 countries including Italy, Andorra, Angola, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela — a total of about 900 doctors and nurses so far, with requests from Argentina and Spain and others in the pipeline.
Cuban medical teams previously saved many lives after some of Asia’s worst natural disasters, including the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and the 2006 earthquake in Indonesia.
Dr. Oscar Putol, a member of the mission treating the victims of the 2006 Indonesian earthquake, explained their operations: “Today, a volcano; tomorrow, an earthquake; the day after, floods. Cuba is prepared to go to any country to help.”
But very little of Cuba’s remarkable history of sending medical teams to Asia and the world – including now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic — is covered by the Western mainstream media.
Cuba in Asia: COVID-19 and Beyond
The former president of Timor-Leste, Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, previously praised Cuba for building a public health system from the ground up after his country’s independence in 2001. In a presidential statement, Ramos-Horta declared, “Timor-Leste has many nations as real friends, but I must ask: what greater gift can we receive than a guaranteed health system for our people? This is the gift from the people of Cuba.”
Cuban doctors are now working with several hundred Timorese doctors who graduated from medical schools in Havana to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from overwhelming the vulnerable population. A total of 950 Timorese doctors graduated from Cuban medical schools from 2000 to 2019.
In addition, one Cuban anti-viral treatment, interferon alfa-2b, was extensively used by Chinese doctors in Wuhan treating the novel coronavirus.
It was easy for Chinese medical authorities to access the Cuban anti-viral drug as since 2003 it has been developed by Changchun Heber (ChangHeber), a Cuban-Chinese joint biotechnology venture in Jilin province.
Cuban expert Dr. Luis Herrera Martínez, who works for Cuba’s CIGB center of biotechnology, explained that interferon alfa-2b “prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching the stage that can ultimately result in death.”
The drug was used with two anti-viral HIV drugs, lopinavir and ritonavir, to treat COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, leading to its inclusion in drug trials now being coordinated by the WHO.
However, one study warned that interferon could only be safely used in dealing with mild symptoms in the early stages of the COVID-19 virus.
Cuba first deployed interferon back in 1981 to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue fever that affected 340,000 Cubans. That experience catalyzed the development of the island’s highly innovative biotech industry, according to Glasgow University lecturer Helen Yaffe, a Cuba specialist.
“Cuba’s IPK [the International Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Diseases] is respected throughout Latin America and beyond,” says Professor Paul Farmer, professor of medical anthropology at Harvard Medical School. “With a comparatively tiny budget — less than that, say, of a single large research hospital at Harvard — IPK has conducted important basic science research, helped develop novel vaccines, trained thousands of researchers from Cuba and from around the world.”
Cuba’s biotechnology expertise has long been attractive for Asian countries, resulting in joint venture agreements with China, Singapore, and Thailand. In addition to the ChangHeber plant, Cuba has another joint venture manufacturing plant, Biotech Pharmaceutical Company Ltd., in the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Zone. The plant was set up in 2000 and produces biopharmaceuticals to treat head, neck, and ear cancers.
Meanwhile, the China-Cuba Biotechnology Joint Innovation Center was officially inaugurated in Hunan province in January – just as the COVID-19 pandemic was heating up in neighboring Hubei. According to the Cuban embassy in China, the center “will develop 100% Cuban projects and technologies.”
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