Cuba Building Vaccine Plant in Zimbabwe that May Carry Dubious Coronavirus Product

Technician Mayelin Mejias works with the "Soberana 02" COVID-19 vaccine at the packaging processing plant of the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. The director of the Finlay Institute said that Cuba hopes to immunize the country’s entire population this year with its own “Soberana 02” …
Yamil Lage/Pool via AP

Cuba’s communist regime said Monday it will resume plans to build a vaccine manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe halted by the coronavirus pandemic, adding it is “possible” the plant may produce a coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by Cuba, the Herald, a Zimbabwean state-owned newspaper, reported.

“We have a plan to establish a plant in Zimbabwe for the production of vaccines. That project started before Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] but we stopped because of the pandemic,” Cuban Ambassador to Zimbabwe Carmelina Rodriguez told the Herald on November 22.

Covid-19, or the Chinese coronavirus, is the name of the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a type of coronavirus.

The Herald asked Ambassador Rodriguez on Monday if the planned vaccine plant in Zimbabwe would manufacture any of Cuba’s state-made coronavirus vaccine candidates.

“We had not talked about the Covid vaccine production but that is also possible if we get the buy-in of both countries,” she replied.

“But the idea is to first create a facility,” Rodriguez continued.

“We want to create a bio-technology agency that will be leading that project,” she revealed.

“Cuba and Zimbabwe have always had a vibrant relationship since before independence,” Ambassador Rodriguez told the Herald, referring to Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980.

“We have doctors deployed in all provincial hospitals across Zimbabwe and we have the intention to increase the number of medical practitioners in Zimbabwe. That is part of our intention to improve the health capacity,” she added.

Ambassador Rodriguez received Zimbabwean businessman Omar Anis on September 22 “to exchange about Cuba’s business opportunities with the Zimbabwean business sector,” Cuba’s Representative Office Abroad reported. “At the meeting, the interest of both parties in exploring economic potential was ratified, to diversify commercial ties.”

Cuba’s state-run Finlay Institute of Vaccines and other Cuban government run-medical facilities claim to have successfully developed their own coronavirus vaccine candidates.

“[I]n a 6 November preprint published on medRxiv1, [Vicente] Vérez Bencomo and his colleagues report that one of the [Finlay] institute’s vaccines, Soberana 02, is more than 90 percent effective in protecting against symptomatic COVID-19 infection when used in combination with a related vaccine,” the British scientific journal Nature reported on November 22. Bencomo is the director-general of Havana’s Finlay Institute.

“As of 18 November, 89 percent of Cuba’s population — including children as young as 2 — has received at least one dose of Soberana 02 or another Cuban vaccine called Abdala, which is produced at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana,” according to Nature.

“The centre reported in July that Abdala, a three-dose vaccine, was more than 92 percent effective [against coronavirus] in phase III trials that included more than 48,000 participants, but the full results have not yet been published,” the scientific journal noted.

“Cuba’s regulatory agency authorized Abdala and Soberana 02 shots for use in adults in July and August respectively, and health-care workers began immunizing children with both vaccines a few months later,” Nature recalled.

Cuba recently began exporting Abdala and Soberana 02 to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, and Vietnam. The island’s government has also requested the World Health Organization grant the vaccine candidates “emergency approval” status.

Zimbabwe relies almost entirely on external donors and foreign countries to fund its dilapidated healthcare system, in large part due to decades of budget mismanagement by the country’s socialist government. Zimbabwe has been deeply impoverished since late dictator Robert Mugabe led so-called land reforms in the early 2000s.

“Starting in 2000, thousands of white Zimbabwean farmers were forced off their land by violent state-backed mobs or evicted in dubious legal judgments, supposedly to help black people marginalized under British colonial rule,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) recalled in 2018. “The farms, however, were often allocated to [then] President Robert Mugabe’s allies [with no knowledge of farming] and fell into ruin, leaving tens of thousands of rural laborers out of work and sending the economy into a tailspin as food production crashed.”

What little income Zimbabwe produces now struggles to find its way to the country’s public healthcare system due to ongoing corruption and poor budgeting by the country’s current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. President Mnangagwa served as Zimbabwean vice president under Mugabe from 2014 to 2017 and leads Zimbabwe today under the leftist Zanu-PF political party, which Mugabe created in 1987.

“We don’t have all the basics, the system is a shell,” Tendai Biti, a Zimbabwean opposition politician for the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC) party, told Al Jazeera of her country’s healthcare system in April.

“[Zimbabwean] President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his ministers and their cronies … have destroyed hospitals, [and are] now facing the consequences,” Biti said. “They should have invested in health, but they didn’t.”

“Healthcare spending in Zimbabwe has historically been poor compared with other countries in the region,” Al Jazeera recalled in April, citing a 2013 World Health Organization (W.H.O.) report on the state of health financing in southern Africa.

“A minimum spending level of $44 per capita was recommended by the High-Level Task Force on Innovative International Financing for Health Systems in 2009,” according to the news outlet. “The WHO overall recommends a spending level of $86 per person – more than four times what Zimbabwe allocates.”

“Zimbabwe’s own spending on healthcare was just $21 per citizen in 2020,” Al Jazeera reported.

Mugabe created the Zanu-PF, or the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, in 1987 following a power struggle between Zimbabwe’s two main political parties at the time, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Mugabe ordered a genocide, known in Zimbabwe as “Gukurahundi,” in part because of this political conflict. The Zimbabwe National Army killed an estimated 20,000 civilians, largely Ndebele-speaking Zimbabweans, in a genocidal campaign targeting alleged supporters of anti-government rebels from the early 1980s to late 1987.

“Zimbabwe and Cuba have shared good relations that date back more than 40 years,” the Herald noted on November 22.

“The Caribbean Island offered training ground for liberation war fighters during the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence [from Britain in 1980],” the state-run Zimbabwean newspaper recalled.

Cuba most recently enacted a violent crackdown on peaceful dissidents, including minors, on November 15 as they attempted to stage a second pro-democracy protest following unprecedented pro-democracy marches on the communist island in July.

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