Cuba has named one of its homegrown vaccines Abdala, after a famous dramatic verse by independence hero and national icon Jose Marti, as a measure of its ambitious efforts to be vaccine self-sufficient. In the verse, the young hero, Abdala, goes to war to defend his fatherland, full of patriotic zeal regardless of how strong and powerful the enemy is.
Many Cubans believe it is the ideal name for the first COVID-19 vaccine developed in Latin America. And the ideal imagery for the story of a tiny island of 11 million people eager to demonstrate that it can withstand a deadly virus and a 60-year economic blockade imposed by the United States, as well as a country with several brilliant scientists of its own.
Gerardo Enrique Guillen Nieto, director of biomedical research at Havana’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), where Abdala was developed, is one of them.
On Father’s Day last Sunday, Cuban television aired a commercial featuring the 58-year-old Guillen Nieto. It began with the scientist in his clinic, accompanied by melodramatic music, while his son spoke off camera about how his father works tirelessly for his family and the people.
According to BioCubaFarma, the state-run biotech corporation, Abdala has been shown to be 92.28 percent effective against COVID-19 in clinical trials, putting it in the same league as the most effective vaccines, BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna. Huge applause erupted this week in the CIGB auditorium as the impressive results were announced.
Guillen Nieto has been inundated with interview requests since then. The entire world wants to know Abdala’s success formula. The Cuban vaccine is not a vector vaccine and does not use mRNA technology. It is, instead, a protein vaccine. That is, it contains a portion of the spike protein used by the virus to bind to human cells. It binds to the receptors of the virus’s own spike protein, eliciting an immune response. The yeast is being used as a receptor-binding domain by the researchers.
Even before the third phase of clinical trials was completed, the government vaccination program began in mid-May with Abdala and the second homegrown vaccine, Soberana 2. These are the first vaccines to arrive on the island since Cuba refused to import any from Russia or China. Cuba has also decided not to participate in the UN-backed COVAX initiative, a global project aimed at getting COVID-19 vaccines to all countries, regardless of wealth.
Guillen Nieto claims that 2.2 million Cubans have already received their first vaccination, 1.7 million their second, and 900,000 their third.
Abdala is given in three doses, with two weeks between each one. According to the government’s ambitious plans, 70 percent of the country’s population should be immunized by August.
It’s a race against time because the number of new infections on the Caribbean island is steadily increasing, with over 2,000 cases reported every day. Nearly 1,200 people have died of COVID-19 in Cuba. Guillen Nieto is counting on the vaccination campaign to give him a decisive advantage over all other countries in the world in the fight against the virus.
An independent panel of experts in Havana will now evaluate the Abdala vaccine, with official emergency approval expected within the next two weeks. Following that, Cuba could apply to the World Health Organization (WHO) for Abdala to be approved for international use. Already, Bolivia, Jamaica, Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico have expressed interest.
Is Abdala, however, the miracle vaccine that the statistics suggest? Jose Moya may be the best person to assess this. The Peruvian doctor began his career as an epidemiologist in his hometown of Ayacucho 30 years ago, and has since worked for Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, Mozambique, and Nigeria.
Moya has been the PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) representative in Cuba for the past two years. PAHO is a regional organization of the WHO with 27 country offices. And he has faith in the Cuban figures.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, on the other hand, is unwilling to dwell on scientific evaluations of the new vaccine. For him, the country’s drive to pursue homegrown solutions rather than importing foreign vaccines are a triumph of Cuba’s biotech industry.