Cuba is going it alone. No contracts with big drug makers, no support from WHO's vaccine program. If successful, Cuba will be the first producer of a vaccine in Latin America.



As countries scramble to try to acquire enough COVID vaccines for their populations, Cuba is taking a different approach - no contracts with big drugmakers, no support from the WHO's vaccine procurement program. The cash-strapped communist government is attempting to develop and manufacture its own vaccine. If successful, it would be the first COVID vaccine developed in Latin America. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Each morning, Cuba's top epidemiologist, Dr. Francisco Duran Garcia, goes on national television and radio to present the daily COVID update.



BEAUBIEN: Dressed in a white lab coat and a white face mask with a small Cuban flag, Dr. Duran, like Anthony Fauci in the U.S., has become the public face of the government's response to the pandemic. He gives the latest statistics on cases and offers advice on hygiene and masks. On this day, a 70-year-old from Old Havana has just passed away.


DURAN GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Duran expressed his condolences individually to the families and friends of those who've died. The number of daily COVID cases peaked in Cuba in February at just over 800 a day.


DURAN GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: The COVID numbers have come down slightly from their peak, but Dr. Duran says there's a great risk that they could increase again. Right now Cuba is relying primarily on social distancing and masks to contain the virus. It doesn't have any vaccine yet. It doesn't plan to purchase any and would have trouble coming up with the foreign currency to buy any even if it wanted to. So Cuba is betting everything on its own laboratories. Currently, it has four candidates in late stages of development. Dagmar Garcia-Rivera is the research director of the institute producing the vaccine given the patriotic title Soberana, meaning sovereignty. The version called Soberana 2, she said, is entering the final stage of clinical trials.


DAGMAR GARCIA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: Cuba says it could have enough vaccine to immunize the whole country by the end of summer, and they very well might. Even though vaccine development and manufacturing is complicated, Cuba, unlike many other countries, has a robust domestic pharmaceutical industry. It's developed domestic vaccines for yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis B and even a lung cancer immunization, which is currently in clinical trials in the U.S. But when it comes to producing a COVID vaccine, Cuba is trying to do it at a breakneck speed in the midst of a major economic crisis.

PAUL VIDAL: Many ask if it's similar to what we lived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, what we call the Special Period.

BEAUBIEN: Paul Vidal is a Cuban economist who's been living in Colombia for 10 years. But before emigrating, he worked for the Central Bank of Cuba. He says ordinary Cubans right now are facing serious shortages of food, cleaning products and even painkillers like aspirin.

VIDAL: We are trying to develop sophisticated vaccines, but people don't have painkillers. That is the paradox.

BEAUBIEN: Despite the challenges, he says Cuba is used to adversity. He says it's like Cuba has a Ph.D. in crisis management. The vaccine is hugely important to the government to help them get out of their current crisis. He's confident they'll succeed. Helen Yaffe agrees. She's a Cuba specialist at the University of Glasgow. Yaffe's written about Cuba's pharmaceutical sector and its previous success developing its own vaccines.

HELEN YAFFE: Does Cuba have the capacity? Yes, Cuba has the capacity.

BEAUBIEN: Yaffe was in Cuba most recently in January. She says there's great excitement and pride about a homegrown vaccine. If Soberana 2 proceeds on schedule, Cuba would have vaccine to spare before many countries have even gotten started with mass immunizations. And Yaffe says Cuba could use it to help jumpstart their tourist industry. There's talk about offering immunizations on arrival at the airport in Havana.

YAFFE: They have said clearly they will offer them to tourists. We don't know whether they will sell them or offer them free as part of a, you know, package holiday - sun, sea, sand and Soberana 2.

BEAUBIEN: Or one of the other patriotically named vaccines that the communist government is currently trying to produce.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.