Helen Yaffe, a specialist in Cuban and Latin American development at the University of Glasgow has testified that Cuba’s Interferon Alfa-2B, is now being used to combat the effects of COVID-19. It was used in China, she wrote in a blog published by the London School of Economics on 18 March.
Yaffe said Cuba was able to develop the drug because of its early entry into the biotech industry, which allowed it to harness international expertise and develop medicines to fight dengue fever and meningitis.
COVID-19 emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December 2019, and by January 2020 it had hit Hubei province like a tidal wave, swirling over China and rippling out overseas.
The Chinese state rolled into action to combat its spread and care for those infected. Amongst the 30 medicines chosen by the Chinese National Health Commission to fight the virus was a Cuban anti-viral drug called Interferon Alfa-2B, which has been produced in China by the Cuban-Chinese joint venture ChangHeber since 2003.
Cuban Interferon Alfa-2B has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of COVID-19. Cuban biotech specialist Dr Luis Herrera Martínez explains that “its use prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that can ultimately result in death.”
Cuba first developed and used interferons to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue virus in 1981, and that experience catalysed the development of the island’s nowworld-leading biotech industry.
The world’s first biotechnology enterprise, Genetech, was founded in San Francisco in 1976, followed by AMGen in Los Angeles in 1980. One year later, the Biological Front, a professional interdisciplinary forum, was set up to develop the industry in Cuba.
While most developing countries had little access to new technologies (recombinant DNA, human gene therapy, biosafety), Cuban biotechnology expanded and took on an increasingly strategic role in both the public-health sector and the national economic development plan. And this despite the US blockade, which obstructed access to technologies, equipment, materials, finance, and even knowledge exchange. Driven by public-health demand, it has been characterised by its fast track from research and innovation to trials and application, as the story of Cuban interferon shows.