By Aishah Mohmad Afandi
KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 -- Cuba, the Caribbean island nation is well known for its exquisite beaches, architectures, cigars and its former revolutionist leader Fidel Castro.
Famous Hollywood personalities, such as Gloria Estefan, Cameron Diaz, Eva Mendes and rising star Camila Cabello also hailed from the island, especially from its capital, Havana.
But little is known of the country's expertise in biotechnology, which was conceived as part of its economic diversification in 1980s during Castro’s era.
Its foresight four decades ago is now giving Cuba an edge in the fight against the COVID-19 scourge in the race to find an effective treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus.
The country began conducting mass testing for COVID-19, and has managed to keep its infection rate to less than 20 new cases per day, with only six new cases reported on Friday.
Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia Ibete Fernández Hernandez said the country’s government had taken preventive steps together with the health authorities and the scientific community.
“Based on our experience, we designed a plan to confront and control the disease,” she said in an interview with Bernama.
At the time of writing, Cuba’s Health Ministry on its twitter, @MINSAPCuba, reported 1,840 confirmed COVID-19 cases, whereby 1,425 have since recovered and 79 people have died.
Despite facing sanctions from the United States (US) since 1962, Cuba has an effective healthcare system which saw the country successfully eliminating polio in 1962, malaria in 1967, neonatal tetanus in 1972, diphtheria in 1979, congenital rubella syndrome in 1989, post-mumps meningitis in 1989, measles in 1993, rubella in 1995, and tuberculosis meningitis in 1997.
According to Big Think, a multi-medium web portal's 2010 data, the country has the world’s highest doctor-patients ratio, with 8.2 physicians per 1,000 people.
One of its key strategies in handling health crisis are assigning medical frontliners to live in the neighbourhoods they serve, a method which was introduced in 1984 and has remained the standard operational model to-date.
“An essential factor in the fight against the pandemic is the active investigation by the communities -- going out to look for cases and not waiting for the patients to come to the hospitals,” she said.
She added that an important part of the battle plan against the COVID-19 was to study the experience of the first countries to be affected by the pandemic, those which have been critically affected, as well as international protocols in place.
“The plan was designed and adopted in pre-epidemic and epidemic stages, with measures according to the complexity of each one,” she said.
Biomedical advancement shields Cuba
Hernandez added that the Cuban scientific community has concentrated on the search for medical protocols and treatments that help combat COVID-19, even before the first confirmed cases were reported in the country.
“Having a high-level biotechnology industry, which is only found in developed countries, allows Cuba to face the pandemic with better conditions,” she said.
From the start of the spread of the new coronavirus in China, she said that the use of interferon Alfa 2B, manufactured with Cuban technology, was known to combat the disease due to its proven antiviral properties.
“The Chinese Health Commission asked companies that produce interferon, including Changchun Heber (a joint venture with Cuba), to supply this medicine to the health system.
“It is not the only medicine used to cope with the pandemic, but it is one of the most used for the treatment of COVID-19, especially in the form of an aerosol,” she said.
One of Cuba’s prestigious scientific institutions, the Centre of Molecular Immunology, has been involved in studies of the new virus, and research protocols are currently being developed with three Cuban products, one of which controls hyper-inflammation, one of the phases of COVID-19 that causes the most harm to patients.
The other is that another drug has been incorporated into the protocol, which was previously used to treat anaemia in patients with kidney failure, and a third research protocol with a molecule that will regenerate damaged tissue in the lungs.
Meanwhile, the Havana-based Immunoassay Centre had managed to assemble a diagnostic system to detect antibodies generated by the new coronavirus.
“Population studies with this technology will soon be carried out in Cuba, which will allow the behaviour of COVID-19 to be diagnosed with greater precision in population groups that are not contacts or suspects and to avoid possible contagion,” Hernandez said.
Economic constrains not an obstacle to send medical aid
According to findings by the David Rockefeller Centre of Latin America Studies, Harvard University, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba was already suffering the worst economic crisis since the 1990s after the collapse of the socialist camp.
It said in addition to basically maintaining the central planning model with some modest reforms that was unable to increase gross domestic product growth and production, Cuba has suffered significant cuts in its economic relationship with Venezuela, while the United States President Donald Trumps' aggressive policies had strengthened the US embargo.
However, none of these factors had stopped the country from conducting humanitarian efforts, or in other words, "doctor-diplomacy".
Cuba has a long history of sending medical support to nations in crisis and is continuing its legacy as the world fights the pandemic.
According to news reports, 22 countries had requested for assistance from Cuba and it has so far sent aids to Italy, South Africa, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Surinam, Jamaica, Haiti, Belize and Dominica.
“Cuba has extended a hand many times, but never so many times in such a short time.
“In the past week, a Henry Reeve brigade has departed with each sunrise. There are already 11 in total. There is no precedent,” Cuba's Health Minister, Jose Angel Portal Miranda said via his official twitter, @japortalmiranda on March 28.
Cuba, Malaysia ties
Hernandez praised Malaysia's effort in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, which has yielded significant results thus far.
“I believe that this is due to the priority given by the government to curb the spread. One of the lessons to be learned from this pandemic is organizational and response capacity, as well as collaboration between countries,” she said.
The ambassador also said that Cuba and Malaysia could collaborate to tackle the pandemic on a more proactive measure as it has the know-how and experience and Malaysia has the required groundwork.
“With our accumulated experience of almost 40 years in biotechnology and Malaysia’s infrastructure, we are ready to collaborate.
“COVID-19 is far from over and we must be prepared for new outbreaks, in the new stage, it will be more necessary to share experiences,” she said.
Cuba and Malaysia established diplomatic ties on Feb 6, 1975 — at the time of the Cold War ideological divide — and since then the countries have enjoyed meaningful relations and cooperation in many areas — politics, economics, medical, education, biotechnology, sports and people-to-people relations.
Cuba had opened its embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 1997, and Malaysia had followed suit by setting up its embassy in Havana in February 2001.
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