The numbers are staggering: while Latin America rises as the current epicenter of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Cuba has successfully managed this disease. Eight months after confirming its first case and without ever ordering total confinement, the Caribbean country has entered the “new normal”, with 1,340 deaths, thanks to a strict protocol, in which Cuban drugs created by the national biotechnology industry were applied.

Cuban drugs, one of the pieces of the puzzle

Cuba was not one of the first countries to close its borders, nor did it apply strict quarantines on towns and cities. So, what is their “secret”? Authorities opted for social distancing and the application of a protocol that included surveillance and isolation of possible cases, early diagnosis, as well as the use of at least 22 Cuban drugs during the therapeutic and convalescent stage.

According to Dr. Ileana Morales Suárez, National Director of Science and Technological Innovation of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP), the Cuban protocol integrated isolated knowledge held by the rest of the countries. This protocol was aimed at the entire population, but with emphasis on vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, children, and people with various conditions.

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Prevention, the first step for Cuban drugs

The initial step of the strategy was to apply Cuban medication to ensure that vulnerable people did not reach a serious or critical state if they contracted the virus.

Among the drugs used was Biomodulin T, produced in Cuba by the National Center for Biopreparations (BioCen). This is a natural, injectable product that acts on the immune system. Once there, it stimulates the production of T lymphocytes. According to Tamara Lobaina, director of BioCen, this immunomodulator has proven to be very effective in combating respiratory diseases in older adults, therefore, it was applied to more than five thousand people of over 60 years of age in the country, many of whom lived in nursing homes and social care centers.

Cuban scientists are working on several vaccines to increase people’s innate immunity, thus reducing the risks of incoming infectious agents.

Cuban scientists are working on several vaccines to increase people’s innate immunity, thus reducing the risk of incoming infectious agents. One of these vaccines is the “CIGB 2020 Immunopotentiator”, developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), together with other institutions. This drug is for nasal and sublingual application and studies show that, when used in people infected with COVID-19, it has slowed the progress of the disease.

In addition, a series of natural products were used in Cuban, in the preventive stage, with the purpose of strengthening the immune system. Among these homeopathic medicines were anamu tablets and Prevengho-Vir.  According to Dr. Johann Perdomo, head of the Department of Natural and Traditional Medicine at MINSAP, Prevengho-Vir is recommended for the prevention of influenza, flu, dengue fever and other emerging viral infections.

What treatment has been used for patients sick with COVID-19?

Almost all Cubans and foreigners diagnosed with COVID-19 in Cuba have been treated with one of the most well-known products of the Cuban biotechnology industry: Heberon, the commercial name of recombinant human Interferon Alpha 2B.

This drug, produced for three decades at the CIGB, was first used in China to fight the pandemic. Its results there were encouraging, and its use expanded.

“More than 92% of patients positive for the virus in the country have used interferon in their therapy, and the data from the results obtained show that the amount of patients that worsen is practically reduced to double the number, compared to those who have not received this  therapy in Cuba”, explained Dr. Eulogio Pimentel, general director of the CIGB.

“Around the world between 15% and 20% of patients evolve towards critical and serious stages of the disease, while in Cuba it has been less than 5% of patients when treated with Heberón”, which demonstrates its “undeniable ability to drastically reduce the number of patients that progress to critical stages,” said Pimentel.

Researchers at the CIGB have developed a new product, called HeberFERON, which is based on the interferons ifns alpha and gamma. It is used to treat skin cancer; however, since both molecules have antiviral and immunomodulatory properties, MINSAP experts decided to use the drug in COVID-19 patients and the results have been promising.

Cuban interferon has sparked great interest in the world and the business group BioCubaFarma, which groups all the biotechnology industry centers, acknowledged that it had been contacted by more than 80 countries, many of which were seeking to obtain the product.

Other antiviral drugs are also used in Cuba, not created in the country, but produced there, such as chloroquine.

The patients who reached the serious and critical stages were treated with Cuban drugs that were used to combat other diseases. One of these drugs was Jusvinza (formerly known as CIGB-258). This peptide was developed for the treatment of autoimmune chronic inflammatory diseases, but it has been effective against COVID-19 because it controls the inflammation that causes the disease and reduces the risk of mortality in patients.

Another one of the drugs used was Itolizumab. This is a monoclonal antibody that has been produced in Cuba since 2014. It is commonly used in the treatment of conditions such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, when applied to COVID-19 patients, it intervenes in the phase “where damage is caused by the exaggerated response of the immune system to the enormous capacity of the virus to divide”, and its use could “stop in time” the consequences of the cytokine storm, said Tania Crombet, director of Clinical Research at the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM).

In addition, the protocol of care for patients in severe phases included another CIM product: recombinant human erythropoietin, “a drug that has been registered for many years in Cuba and is used to treat anemic patients with renal failure, anemia of premature children, and in those with AIDS or cancer with anemia”, clarified Crombet.

This drug plays a role in cytoprotection, which is why it was used in seriously ill or critically ill patients to “seek protection from the ischemic damage seen in these kinds of patients,” Crombet acknowledged.

A Cuban vaccine against COVID-19?

Scientists around the world are immersed in an unbridled race to obtain an effective vaccine against the new coronavirus. Cuba is working at an accelerated pace to develop a specific preventive vaccine for COVID-19 and, according to Edurado Martinez, President of BioCubaFarman, it already has several vaccine candidates. “In the world, there are many funds to develop vaccines. As this is a situation that is affecting the economy, it is necessary to have a vaccine. Everybody is aware of this and a lot of money has been put into it. We do not have that amount of money. We are going to create the vaccine with great care and dedication and rely on the intelligence and wisdom of our researchers, ”Martínez clarified.