By Lorena Canto
HAVANA -- A year after detecting its first coronavirus cases, Cuba is experiencing the worst wave yet of coronavirus infections even as it continues to push forward to be the first Latin American country to develop a vaccine to immunize its entire population against Covid-19.
Three Italian tourists on March 11, 2020, were the first confirmed carriers of the Sars-CoV-2 virus in Cuba and one of them was the first death.
During most of 2020, Cuba kept its borders closed and managed to keep the pandemic at bay with its strategy based on exhaustive contact tracing for those people showing symptoms and on obligatory quarantine and hospitalization of all confirmed cases and their contacts, at the same time that it was sending medical brigades to many countries to help them fight the health crisis.
But now, the country is suffering through a third wave of the pandemic, which has infected more people and caused more deaths so far this year than in all of 2020, a situation that erupted because of the reopening of the airports in October and the year-end festivities.
As of Thursday, Cuba had confirmed 59,157 coronavirus cases and 357 deaths.
The lethality rate of 0.6 percent is low compared with other countries in the region, especially in Havana, which has an infection rate of 274 per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks.
"From the point of view of the figures it's a significantly greater challenge to control a wave like the current one," Cuban molecular biologist and researcher with the Sao Paulo State University, Amilcar Perez Riverol, who emphasized that the current "spike" is 17 times greater than the first wave a year ago.
The strategies authorities used to control the situation last year are not working now, in part because the country, immersed in a dire crisis and an 11 percent economic contraction in 2020, cannot undertake a shutdown as drastic as the ones it implemented during the first two waves.
Amid this scenario, Cubans are banking on one of the five possible vaccines the country is developing and providing the main hope in the health crisis but also the tool to get the island's economy out of its death spiral.
Cuba has a well-known biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector and the prospects for exporting the potential Covid vaccine open up a new source of foreign currency for the island. At the same time, its development could reactivate tourism, a key economic sector that plunged by 75 percent in earnings last year.
Havana has not acquired any doses of other vaccines on the international market and Cuba is not one of the 33 Latin American countries that have joined the Covax Mechanism created under the auspices of the World Health Organization to favor equitable access to immunization for nations with medium and low income levels.
He emphasized "the main virtues demonstrated so far by the (vaccine) candidates are their apparent safety," and in the case of the most advanced one - dubbed Soberana 02 - the partial data on their immunization effectiveness "are encouraging."
Although this is good news, any Cuban vaccine will not be available for three or four months and "this means that, if no alternative is employed, Cuba would only begin vaccinating starting in June or July," Perez Riverol said.