Cuba is using “wonder drug” that officials there say is capable of treating the new coronavirus despite the United States’ strict sanctions that continue to pressure the communist-run island.
The drug, called Interferon Alpha-2B Recombinant (IFNrec), is jointly developed by scientists from Cuba and China, where the coronavirus COVID-19 disease outbreak first emerged late last year. Already active in China since January, the Cuban Medical Brigades began deploying to dozens of nations, providing personnel and products such as its new anti-viral drug to battle the disease that has exceeded 400,000 confirmed cases across the globe. As of Tuesday, over 100,000 people have recovered from the infection and more than 18,000 have died.
Cuba first used advanced interferon techniques to treat dengue fever in the 1980s and later found success in using it to combat HIV, human papillomavirus, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and other diseases. The use of Interferon Alpha-2B Recombinant “prevents aggravation and complications in patients reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death,” Cuban biotech expert Luis Herrera Martinez said, according to a recent Yale University Press Blog feature written by the University of Glasgow’s Helen Yaffe. She called the treatment a potential “wonder drug” against the new coronavirus.
Yaffe, who recently authored a book on Cuba’s post-Soviet economic experience entitled We Are Cuba!, told Newsweek that she knew of at least 15 countries that have contacted Cuba to request the drug, along with “local mayors and hospital directors who are anxious to get hold of the Cuban anti-viral to meet the crisis.” Interferon Alpha-2B Recombinant has not been approved to treat COVID-19, but has been proven effective against viruses similar to it.
It has been selected along with 30 other drugs to treat COVID-19 by China’s National Health Commission. The World Health Organization will be studying interferon-beta, along with three other drugs, to determine their effectiveness against the new coronavirus.
Cuba’s ambitious anti-pandemic efforts are hindered, however, by decades-long U.S. sanctions that one Cuban official described to Newsweek as “the main obstacle not only to respond to major health crises like COVID-19, but the main obstacle to the country’s development at any area.”
“The lifting of the blockade against Cuba would have an extraordinarily positive impact on Cuba and mostly in the health sector, which has been one of the most damaged areas since the establishment of the blockade almost 60 years ago with more than 3 billion in economic losses,” the official added.
The State Department has said it would offer assistance to sanctioned countries facing this new coronavirus, repeatedly mentioning Iran and North Korea but not Cuba in recent statements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did, however, single out the country along with several others earlier this month while discussing the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that targeted Cuba over its single-party system, imprisonment of political prisoners and other abuses reported by the U.S.
“The root of the U.S. sanctions is the reality that the Castro regime uses its financial resources to abuse the Cuban people and engage in malign influence around the region, especially in Venezuela. That basic reality needs to change before any scaling back of sanctions could be discussed,” a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.
“Furthermore, the U.S. State Department has documented indicators of human trafficking in Cuba’s overseas medical missions each year since the 2010 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, including, most recently, those included in the 2019 TIP Report,” the spokesperson added. “We urge host country governments to examine the practices surrounding these programs and proactively investigate the contractual agreements associated with Cuba’s medical missions in their countries.”
The Cuban Foreign Ministry regularly rejects such accusations, arguing that Washington’s embargo was instead the true violation of international law and highlighting Havana’s humanitarian contributions.
“Despite the blockade, Cuban doctors are working in 59 countries around the world, 37 of which have confirmed cases of COVID-19,” the Cuban official told Newsweek.
These countries include Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Grenada, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Suriname and Venezuela but also Italy, which has witnessed the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak to date. The disease has no veritable vaccine or cure yet, but Havana hoped to demonstrate its ability to at least alleviate health crises on an international scale.