All over the country millions of people stay on the phone listening for hours to a recorded message. Others line up outside sports stadiums. And others have given up entirely. They are all waiting for the COVID vaccine.
Nearly two months have passed since the first vaccine was administered in the United States, yet only 5.7 percent of people have been fully vaccinated nationwide.
“Every day you check and you hope,” said Laura Beattie, a retired long-time DC-metro area resident. “The vaccine has sort of dried up. The people who had their first are hopeful they will get their second.”
While people in the US are angry and confused, Cuba has made important strides towards eliminating COVID and distributing vaccines to endangered populations and children. The comparison is striking.
San Francisco is in Phase 1a and 1b of their distribution plan, which gives priority to health workers and those 65 years and older. San Francisco’s official government page shows that around 18 percent of the city’s eligible population has received one dose and six percent have received two doses as of Feb. 22.
Mayor London Breed announced on Feb. 9 that despite a limited vaccine supply, the city will expand vaccine eligibility later this month. Teachers, child-care workers, police, firefighters, food service workers, and agricultural workers will be eligible starting Feb. 24. Mayor Breed set an ambitious goal in January of having all city residents and workers vaccinated by June 30.
An electronic visit to the websites of Moscone Center South, Kaiser, City College (partnered with UCSF), and San Francisco State University allows a visitor to register for vaccine updates and possibly book an appointment. Despite improvements, most visitors can still only register for updates.
“Two or three weeks ago it was more difficult,” Allison Poon, a grants specialist at Tides Foundation told us, “but things seem to be improving.” Poon has assisted many of her family members in obtaining a vaccine.
Much of her success has been through word of mouth and social media updates posted by friends. Poon explained, “One person in our friend group always knows and posts on social media. That’s how we know when to check each center’s website.”
The problem is not a limited number of places to receive a vaccine. It is a limited number of vaccines to distribute.
Trump produces long waits
From the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration adopted a disjointed, every-state-for-themselves approach.
To add to the confusion, the Trump administration decided to change age requirements for early phases of vaccination rollout from 75+ to 65+ on Jan. 12. This led to a surge in demand, which overwhelmed distribution centers. Many who scheduled appointments around Jan. 12 were informed that their appointment had been cancelled due to lack of supplies.
While the Biden administration attempts to build a unified front to fight the virus, it must first clean-up the chaotic mess of the Trump administration’s lack of a plan.
As of this writing, COVID has infected 27.5 million people and killed 48,000. San Francisco alone has had 33,079 cases and 359 deaths.
Meanwhile Cuba, the small island nation of 11 million, has a total of 32,011 cases and 233 deaths. As explained previously in 48 Hills, Cuba quickly implemented a national program of testing, tracing, and isolating.
In January, Cuba experienced a resurgence that led to a 9pm curfew for residents of Havana. Schools, restaurants, and bars were closed. Fines could be issued for violating the new protocols. The resurgence led to further delays in reopening tourism, which provides much needed revenue.
Meanwhile, Cuba has been developing four vaccines now in test stages. Cuba plans large scale vaccinations in March.
“Over the next few weeks, vaccination will be extended to 150,000 people on the island,” said Vicente Vérez, director Cuba’s pharmaceutical institute. “A test will be carried out in February to protect children.”
“We are not a multinational where the (financial) return is the number one reason,” he added. “We work the other way around; creating more health and return is a consequence; it will never be the priority.”
Soberana 2, (Sovereign 2 in English) is the vaccine with the most likely chance of mass distribution. The plan is to create 100 million doses of Soberana 2. The remaining doses will be given to several other countries. The United States is not one of them.
Some scientists argue Cuba’s vaccines may be more reliable, effective, and safer for immune comprised people because they use a more traditional method similar to smallpox and other diseases. Dead COVID cells are used to spark an immune system reaction.
“They are based on technologies that have been developed over decades,” Cuba specialist and author of We Are Cuba!, Dr. Helen Yaffe explained. Cuba continues to work on all four vaccines in tandem instead of relying on one or two.
“Perhaps one vaccine works better for youths, another for the elderly,” Yaffe told us in a phone interview from Scotland where she teaches at the University of Glasgow. “For example, one is a nasal spray called Mambisa which would be much easier to administer to kids.”
The Cuban vaccines also do not require the extreme freezing temperatures as do some other vaccines. This will allow for broader distribution and provide broader access to poorer countries.
Of the Cuban vaccines, Soberana 1 and Abdala are both in phase 2, Mambisa is in phase 1, and Soberana 2 is currently in phase 3 of trials. Testing of Soberana 2 is being done in Iran and Cuba as per an agreement made in January. Cuba plans to use Soberana 2 for mass, in-country vaccinations later this year.
Yaffe is confident that Cuba will be amongst the first countries to completely vaccinate its entire population because of its healthcare system. “They have a family doctor in every community, and clinics even in isolated communities,” she explained. Cuba currently ranks third in the world for doctors per capita with 67.2 per 10,000 people.
The pandemic has spurred interest in possible US-Cuban medical cooperation such as joint research and testing. So far 15 US cities have expressed a desire to collaborate with Cuba. The Biden administration has stated that it will be guided by science and not politics. Perhaps the new administration will be more inclined to collaborate than its predecessor.
Stuart Blackwell is a freelance journalist.