Counter Punch - March 17, 2020

COVID-19 surged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December 2019 and by January 2020 it had hit Hubei province like a tidal wave, swirling over China and rippling out overseas. The Chinese state rolled into action to combat the spread and care for those infected. Among the 30 medicines the Chinese National Health Commission selected to fight the virus was a Cuban anti-viral drug Interferon Alpha 2b. This drug has been produced in China since 2003, by the enterprise ChangHeber, a Cuban-Chinese joint venture.

Cuban Interferon Alpha 2b has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of COVID-19. Cuban biotech specialist, Dr Luis Herrera Martinez explained that ‘its use prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death.’ Cuba first developed and used interferons to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue virus in 1981, and the experience catalysed the development of the island’s now world-leading biotech industry.

The world’s first biotechnology enterprise, Genetech, was founded in San Francisco in 1976, followed by AMGen in Los Angeles in 1980. One year later, the Biological Front, a professional interdisciplinary forum, was set up to develop the industry in Cuba. While most developing countries had little access to the new technologies
(recombinant DNA, human gene therapy, biosafety), Cuban biotechnology expanded and took on an increasingly strategic role in both the public health sector and the national economic development plan. It did so despite the US blockade obstructing access to technologies, equipment, materials, finance and even knowledge exchange. Driven by public health demand, it has been characterised by the fast track from research and innovation to trials and application, as the story of Cuban interferon shows.

Interferons are ‘signalling’ proteins produced and released by cells in response to infections which alert nearby cells to heighten their anti-viral defences. They were first identified in 1957 by Jean Lindenmann and Aleck Isaacs in London. In the 1960s Ion Gresser, a US-researcher in Paris, showed that interferons stimulate lymphocytes that attack tumours in mice. In 1970s, US oncologist Randolph Clark Lee, took up this research.

Catching the tail end of US President Carter’s improved relations with Cuba, Dr Clark Lee visited Cuba, met with Fidel Castro and convinced him that interferon was the wonder drug. Shortly afterwards, a Cuban doctor and a haematologist spent time in Dr Clark Lee’s laboratory, returning with the latest research about interferon and more contacts. In March 1981, six Cubans spent 12 days in Finland with the Finnish doctor Kari Cantell, who in the 1970s had isolated interferon from human cells, and had shared the breakthrough by declining to patent the procedure. The Cubans learned to produce large quantities of interferon.

Within 45 days of returning to the island, they had produced their first Cuban batch of interferon, the quality of which was confirmed by Cantell’s laboratory in Finland. Just in time, it turned out. Weeks later Cuba was struck by an epidemic of dengue, a disease transmitted by mosquitos. It was the first time this particularly virulent strand, which can trigger life-threatening dengue haemorrhagic fever, had appeared in the Americas. The epidemic affected 340,000 Cubans with 11,000 new cases diagnosed every day at its peak. 180 people died, including 101 children. The Cubans suspected the CIA of releasing the virus. The US State Department denied it, although a recent Cuban investigation claims to provide evidence that the epidemic was introduced from the US. ...
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