In a measure of its ambitious efforts to be vaccine self-reliant, Cuba has named one of its homegrown jabs Abdala, after a famous dramatic verse by independence hero and national icon Jose Marti. In the verse, the young hero, Abdala, heads to war to defend his fatherland, full of patriotic fervor no matter how strong and powerful the enemy.
From the perspective of many Cubans, it’s the perfect name for the first COVID-19 vaccine to be developed in Latin America. And the perfect imagery for the story of a tiny island of 11 million inhabitants eager to show it can’t be broken by a deadly virus and a 60-year economic blockade by the United States, and a country that boasts several brilliant scientists of its own.
Cuba’s new scientist star
One of them is Gerardo Enrique Guillen Nieto, director of biomedical research at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana where Abdala was developed.
Last Sunday on Father’s Day, Cuban television ran a commercial featuring the 58-year-old Guillen Nieto. Accompanied by melodramatic music, it opened with the scientist in his clinic while his son talked off camera about how his father works tirelessly for his family and the people.
“We have worked full time since the beginning of the pandemic, every Saturday, every Sunday, from early in the morning until late at night, without even a moment’s rest,” the highly respected scientist said in the clip. “And we are very euphoric because the results have exceeded all our expectations. We knew the vaccine was very good, but not even I expected such a result.”
Charting its own course
According to the state-run biotech corporation, BioCubaFarma, Abdala has proven about 92.28% effective against COVID-19 in clinical trials, which would put it the same league as the most effective vaccines BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna. Huge applause erupted in the auditorium of the CIGB this week when the impressive results were announced.
Since then, Guillen Nieto has been inundated with interview requests. The whole world wants to know Abdala’s formula for success. The Cuban vaccine is neither a vector vaccine nor does it work with mRNA technology. Instead, it’s a so-called protein vaccine. That means it carries a portion of the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells. It docks onto the receptors of the virus’ own spike protein, thus triggering an immune reaction. The scientists are using yeast as a receptor-binding domain.
The government vaccination program was rolled out in mid-May with Abdala and the second homegrown vaccine, Soberana 2, even before the completion of the third phase of clinical trials. These are the first vaccines on the island since Cuba declined importing any shots from Russia or China. Cuba has also decided against joining the UN-backed COVAX initiative, a global project aimed at getting COVID-19 shots to countries regardless of their wealth.