Call for White House to “Clear the Air’ on Cuban Economic Sanctions Policy – With Respect to COVID Vaccines
cuba biden
The Biden administration has been asked to clarify its sanctions policy vis a vis Cuba, with respect to COVID vaccines.

The Biden administration has been asked to clarify that sanctions against Cuba would not extend to collaborations in the development, manufacturing, distribution and sale of COVID-19 vaccines that the island nation is in the process of developing.

A memorandum, sent by Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) on 28 June to the White House, asks the US government to “clear the air” regarding its economic sanctions policies – and thus ensure that private companies and other organizations can work with Cuba on its vaccine programme. 

“Over the past year and a half, U.S. sanctions against Cuba have cast a cloud over the ability of companies and non-profit organizations to work with Cuba on its vaccine program. The Biden administration needs to clear the air and reassure the WHO, suppliers of inputs, and others that none of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba extend to activities to make, sell or distribute its vaccines,” said KEI Director James Love in his memo.  

The ongoing economic blockade of Cuba during the pandemic was described by Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez, as “obscene” in his closing remarks to the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) in May. He called for it to be lifted – alongside the removal of patent protections for COVID vaccines. 

Cuba scientists are facing challenges in the development and scale-up of the manufacture of their vaccine candidates, which have been reported to have significant potential, due to restrictions imposed by the longtime US economic sanctions against the communist island state. 

Cuba’s Vaccines in Late Stages of R&D; Abdala Vaccine 92% Effective Against Coronavirus 

Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines are seen as Latin America’s hope.

Despite ongoing challenges, Cuba is in its late stages of research and development with two out of five of its indigenous COVID-19 vaccines – Abdala and Soberana 2.  

On 21 June, Cuba announced that its three dose Abdala vaccine against COVID-19 was 92% effective. Earlier, it said that its Soberana 2 vaccine was 62% effective with two doses, with its efficacy expected to rise with administration of the third dose.  

“This is excellent news and fills us with optimism in the region, where there is still a great deficit of vaccines,” said Jose Moya, WHO Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) representative in Cuba as quoted by El Pais

Once trial data is published, Cuba will then file for regulatory approval with its national medicines authority.  Health officials meanwhile aim to have 70% of the island’s inhabitants vaccinated by this fall.  

The Cuban government is also in the process of engaging the WHO in the evaluation of its vaccine candidates, for WHo regulatory approval.

“If all goes well, the Cuban vaccines will be able to join the eight already prequalified in the world before the end of the year,” Moya added.

Cuban Vaccines – Potential Importance to Latin America

These announcements could mean good news for neigehboring Latin American states, which have been unable to access sufficient vaccines from big suppliers in the US, Europe, India, China, or Russia – even as Latin America has been the global epicenter of the pandemic in recent weeks.

PAHO has meanwhile called for urgent donations of vaccines in light of the growing spread of COVID in Latin America and the Caribbean, also uging G7 nations to expedite delivery of promised donations, especially since vaccine rollouts have progressed more slowly than hoped-for in Latin America.   At a recent meeting in the United Kingdom, the Group of Seven (G7) pledged one billion COVID vaccine doses to countries around the world,

Calls on US to Support Evaluation and Registration of Cuba’s Vaccines 

The KEI letter also asked that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and other federal agencies directly engage with Cuban research institutes to fund expanded or additional clinical trials, and support them in achieving global regulatory approval.  

Love cites a 13 June 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Ministry of Public Health of Cuba, which called for deepening public health cooperation on communicable diseases – understandings put in place during the administration of former US President Barack Obama  – but frozen during the term of US President Donald Trump. 

The KEI letter also refers  to a January White House memorandum published in January, just after President Joe Biden took office, outlining COVID-related sanctions relief measures that it would take. That memorandum states: 

“The Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of HHS and the Administrator of USAID, shall promptly review existing United States and multilateral financial and economic sanctions to evaluate whether they are unduly hindering responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide recommendations to the President, through the APNSA and the COVID-19 Response Coordinator, for any changes in approach.”

Despite this statement, Biden’s campaign promises to “go back” to the Obama policy of engagement with Cuba remains unfulfilled, with the US currently focused on its own interests, a senior administration official was recently quoted as saying by the Washington Post.

“We have an entire world and a region in disarray,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We are combating a pandemic and dealing with a breaking down of democracy in a whole host of countries. That is the environment we are in. When it comes down to Cuba, we’ll do what’s in the national security interest of the United States.”

Image Credits: News Prensa Latina/Twitter, C-Span.

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