By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba started a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 on Wednesday using one of its five homegrown vaccine candidates which, if proven effective, could improve access to inoculations across Latin America, one of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic.
Cuba's state-run biopharma sector - which has a long history of developing, producing and exporting serums - has concluded late-phase trials at home for the vaccine, Abdala, in more than 48,000 volunteers but not yet published the results.
Still, it says the advantages of starting mass vaccination outweigh the risks, given the shot has proven safe and effective in generating antibodies and Cuba is facing its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
Several nations have rushed to deploy COVID vaccines before all results were through. In the United States and Europe, vaccines were approved for emergency use based on small samples of early data from phase three trials, while in Russia and China vaccines were deployed before the publication of results from phase two.
"Even though it's maybe not certain I won't get ill, if I do get ill, I think it won't be as severe and wouldn't kill me," said Dora Garrido Garcia, 75, after getting her first of three Abdala shots at a clinic in Regla, a suburb in the Havana Bay. "So I'm happy."
If Cuba's homegrown vaccines prove successful, it will mark a major achievement for the small Communist-run country and a ray of hope for its allies and developing countries struggling with inequitable global vaccine access.
Other countries in Latin America - including Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico - have already expressed interest in acquiring or even producing the Cuban vaccines.
Cuba's biopharma sector expects its health regulator to give emergency use authorization next month for at least one of its two most advanced vaccine candidates, Abadala and Soberana 2. But the government says it wants to get a headstart on curbing infections with "intervention studies" in the most at-risk populations.
It has applied shots to hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers and is setting about vaccinating Cubans it considers most vulnerable to COVID-19 in some of the most infected areas of the Caribbean island nation.
In hard-hit Havana, that means those aged 60 and above. But in other areas like Cuba's top beach resort, Varadero, that means tourism sector workers who will receive their first shot from Friday, according to state-run media.
Health Minister José Portal said last Friday he expected 70% of the population to have received a COVID-19 shot by August.
Officials have raised the idea of eventually offering the vaccine to tourists, in a bid to revive the sector, one of the ailing economy's key earners, which has been devastated by the pandemic.
Critics say Cuba will find itself in a tricky situation if its vaccine candidates are not effective given it has not sealed any deals for foreign shots. In addition to the human cost, this would be a setback to an economy already dealing with widespread shortages due to its cash crunch, they say.
TWELVEFOLD RISE IN INFECTIONS
BioCubaFarma will have produced enough doses to immunize Cuba's 11 million inhabitants by August, the state-run company's chief Eduardo Martínez said last Friday.
"We will probably be the first country to immunize the whole population with its own vaccine," he said in a roundtable discussion on state television.
The country, which prides itself on its healthcare achievements, successfully contained its coronavirus outbreak last year but saw cases jump after it relaxed lockdown restrictions and opened borders in November without requiring a test.
Cubans from the diaspora rushed home to celebrate year-end festivities, often bringing the virus with them.
The arrival of new strains of the virus, in particular the South African variant, have worsened contagion. Cuba has attempted to rein it in by cutting flight schedules, requiring negative test results from travelers and imposing new lockdown restrictions and curfews.
Last month, the country registered 17,362 cases, more than 12 times December's figure, with Havana one of the worst affected areas.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Reuters TV, Nelson Acosta and Christine Soares; Editing by Marguerita Choy)