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Cuban drug being used to fight COVID-19

March 26, 2020 | by Serafina Vick

It’s common knowledge that since the first years of its socialist revolution in 1959, Cuba has suffered an ongoing trade embargo from the United States. Over the last 60 years this embargo has had many devastating effects on Cubans and life in Cuba, but is has also forced the country to strike out on its own. A prime example is the Cuban pharmaceutical industry, which is now one of the strongest in the Caribbean. The island has developed its own vaccines, cancer treatments and medicines, and continues to develop more. At first Cuba only produced pharmaceuticals for its own population but in recent years it has started exporting them around the world. One Cuban medicine in particular, Interferon Alpha 2b, is now being used in China to fight Coronavirus.

Keen to draw on Cuban expertise, particularly in viral diseases, China first began to work with Cuban pharmacists in the 2000s. Together the two nations established Changchun Heber Biological Technology, a Sino-Cuban pharmaceutical company producing interferon-based medicines and vaccines. Interferon Alpha 2b, first commercialised in China in 2007, is an antiviral drug that bolsters the human immune system. In their natural state, Interferon proteins are released by the human body in response to infection and cause nearby cells to heighten their antiviral defences. By introducing more of these proteins into a patient’s system, drugs like Interferon Alpha 2b help prevent the aggravations and complications that can lead to death. Currently, interferon drugs are used all over the world to treat a host of conditions, from Leukaemia to Chronic Hepatitis.They were also used to treat patients during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. According to Cuban newspaper Granma, Interferon Alpha 2b has contributed to the recovery of more than 1,500 Coronavirus patients in China, where it is being used alongside 30 other drugs approved by the Chinese government in their fight against COVID-19.

The interferon protein molecule was first produced on a large scale by Finnish scientist Kari Cantell in 1972 and Cuban researchers were made aware of the use of interferon proteins in 1981 by American medic Lee Clark, who was developing interferons for use in cancer treatments at the University of Texas M.D Anderson Cancer Centre. That same year a team of Cuban researchers visited Texas and then returned to Cuba and began their own investigations, developing their own drug with Cuban technologies. The Cuban government, via their mouthpiece Granma, is quick to remind us that Cuba isn’t the only country to produce drugs using interferon, nor is Interferon Alpha 2b “a 100% Cuban medicine” (it’s produced in collaboration with China). However, they claim that the Cuban technology used to elaborate the drug has brought more “efficiency and quality” to the manufacturing process.

As a tropical country, Cuba has vast experience dealing with infectious diseases such as Dengue, Malaria and Zika, and Interferon Alpha 2b has been used to fight epidemics in Cuba in the past, such as the Dengue outbreak of 1981. Now, faced with a global Coronavirus pandemic, the Cuban Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and the National Centre for Biopreparations are said to be working around the clock to produce as much of this, and other essential drugs, as possible. Though it isn’t a vaccine as some have rumoured, or a “cure” for COVID-19, Cuba’s virus-fighting medicine has put it once again on the world-stage during this testing time for the human race, highlighting what one small, developing nation is capable of.

Written by

Serafina Vick

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