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Cuba’s race to make its own coronavirus vaccine – podcast

A nurse prepares an injection needle with Cuba's Soberana 2 vaccine.
Cuba’s Soberana 02 coronavirus vaccine is one of two in phase 3 clinical trials. Ramon Espinosa/EPA

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, how Cuba is pushing ahead with developing its own coronavirus vaccines – and could be nearing “vaccine sovereignty”. And we hear from a researcher about what he learned from asking hundreds of people about the biggest decisions of their lives.

Throughout 2020, the small island nation of Cuba was able to limit the spread of COVID-19 cases and the number of deaths. By early May 2021, just under 700 people had died from the disease – that’s a death rate of around 60 people per million, compared with around 1,750 per million in the US.

While the death rate remains low, case numbers have been increasing in 2021 and there are currently around 1,000 new cases recorded each day.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has hit the Cuban economy hard: its economy shrunk 11% in 2020. Alongside the loss of revenue from tourism – an important source of foreign currency for the island – the strengthening of US sanctions against Cuba’s communist government caused a severe economic crisis, which has led to food shortages. The US sanctions are aimed at pressuring the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation in the country.

When it comes to vaccines, Cuba has decided to go it alone. For this episode, we spoke to three experts to explain how Cuba’s race for a coronavirus vaccine is going – and where it fits into the wider picture of global vaccine diplomacy.

Virologist Amilcar Perez Riverol is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of São Paulo State in Brazil. He explains that Cuba is working on five candidate vaccines for COVID-19, two of which have moved to phase 3 clinical trials – Soberena O2 and Abdala. These two vaccines are also being rolled out to over 100,000 healthcare workers. Riverol says it’s “a bit unusual” to immunise thousands of people with vaccine candidates for which “you don’t know the efficacy yet”.

Jennifer Hosek, professor of languages, literatures and cultures at Queen’s University, Ontario in Canada, tells us that in Cuba, “trust in the government in regards to healthcare has been built up through many, many decades”. The country has also invested heavily in its healthcare system over many years and is well-known for its medical diplomacy, which includes sending doctors around the world as part of its focus on international solidarity.

And Peter Hotez, professor of paediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine in the US, puts Cuba’s effort to produce its own vaccine into some global perspective. “We need to have the ability to develop vaccines locally in Africa, expand capacity in Latin America and the Middle East and in Asia,” he says, arguing that it’s part of the answer to fixing the dependency on multinational companies, which don’t always produce the vaccines that are needed in low- and middle-income countries.

In our second story, we speak to Adrian Camilleri about his research asking people about the big decisions they’ve made in their lives. It all stemmed from a question he used to ask people at dinner parties: imagine you will make ten big decisions in your life; how many of them do you think you’ve already made? He tells us what he found, including that the process of making a big decision can affect how you think about it later in your life.

And Finlay Macdonald, senior editor at The Conversation in New Zealand, gives us his recommended reads for the week.

The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. or via email on You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

News clips in this episode are from CNN, Sky News Australia, Al Jazeera, Reuters, teleSur tv and CGTN.

You can listen to The Conversation Weekly via any of the apps listed above, our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here.

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