Cuba is partnering with Iran to produce a COVID-19 vaccine developed by scientists on the island, the latest example of how the two U.S.-sanctioned nations are building closer ties.
A spokesman for Iran’s Food and Drug Administration said his country is producing a vaccine to protect against the virus in cooperation with a Cuban company.
“The second phase of the human trial is being conducted under the supervision of the Pasteur Institute of Iran in Cuba,” Kianoush Jahanpour told Iran’s Mehr news agency. “Provided that the second phase is successful, the third phase will be implemented in Iran.”
The development comes as both countries grapple with economic woes while racing to vaccinate their populations. Though Iran and Cuba face strict U.S. sanctions, the sale of medicine is allowed. Nonetheless, many companies prefer to avoid the legal costs of doing business with targeted countries. And they often have difficulty accessing international financing.
“The news that Cuba and Iran are working to produce a Covid-19 vaccine is hardly surprising,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington. “Both governments have been subjected to harsh US sanctions, which has limited opportunities to develop and access a vaccine. The alliance is geopolitical, but also pragmatic.”
Iran’s agreement with Cuba to carry out a Phase 3 trial in the Middle East nation was contingent on ensuring access to the technology to develop the vaccine, Jahanpour said. The country is working on a separate vaccine of its own while it tries to obtain others on the international market. It is also participating in COVAX, a program being co-led by the World Health Organization to ensure less developed nations have access.
Cuba is betting on the local development of vaccines and has not publicly said if it is interested in participating in COVAX.
It is not clear which of the vaccines currently being evaluated in clinical trials in Cuba will be produced in Iran. The Sovereign 2A vaccine appears to be the most advanced in the process.
According to data from the Cuban Public Registry of Clinical Trials, the first two clinical trial phases for the Sovereign 1 vaccine were due to be completed this month. The trials were conducted by Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute. The center’s director, Dr. Vicente Vérez, said at the end of December that the vaccine has shown “safety and a very good immune response,” but requires more time than others between doses, delaying the next stage of the trial, which is expected to start in February.
Participants in a trial for a second vaccine candidate, Soberana 2A, showed an earlier immune response, at 14 days, allowing studies to advance more quickly, he said.
He said authorities expect to recruit 150,000 people in Havana to participate in a Phase 3 clinical trial of Soberana 2A, but that negotiations were ongoing to develop it in other countries due to the low prevalence of COVID-19 in the Cuban population. The vaccine’s name means ‘sovereign’ in English.
Cuba could begin immunizing population in the first half of 2021, Vérez said, which would mean starting part of the production process before the end of the trials.
The institute has not released data on the clinical trials, an the Cuban government has not officially announced the Iran agreement.
Iranian foreign minister ‘impressed’ in Havana
During a visit to Havana in November, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with officials from the Ministry of Public Health and BioCubaFarma, a biotechnology company that exports pharmaceuticals, as well as specialists from the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology..
Zarif said on Twitter that he was “impressed” by Cuba’s progress related to COVID-19. A photo of the meeting published by BioCubaFarma on the company’s Twitter account shows a screen with information about the second Soberana vaccine. Iranian media reported that Cuban officials made a presentation on vaccine production and cooperation between BioCubaFarma and Iran’s Pasteur Institute.
Zarif’s visit to Cuba “confirms the mutual solidarity between both nations, given the intensification of sanctions by the current United States administration to countries that do not bend to its will,” according to a note in the official newspaper Granma.
The export of vaccines and medicines is a significant source of income for Cuba. At the beginning of the pandemic, authorities promoted the sale of a locally produced interferon, a protein naturally produced by the body in response to a virus. The government also massively distributed a homeopathic compound with no proven effectiveness to fight the virus.
After closing the country’s borders for eight months, the government reopened airports in mid-November, prompting a steep increase in coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday, 13,165 confirmed cases were reported, with a daily average of 200 cases or more. Though low compared to other nations in the region, the caseload has doubled since November and authorities are again limiting international flights.
There were early expectations that Cuba might utilize the Russian vaccine as well. In August, Kirill Dmitriev, director of the investment fund behind Sputnik V, said that Cuba could start producing it in November of last year. But plans seem to have fallen apart as the cash-strapped Cuban government has defaulted on various creditors, and Russia suspended several joint projects.
Iran has experienced the worst virus outbreak in the Mideast, reporting over 1.2 million cases and over 55,000 deaths.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres