By 7am a long queue stretches around the medical centre near the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. Some of those waiting have been there for hours; all are hoping to be volunteers to test Soberana-2 (Sovereign-2), Cuba’s most advanced covid-19 vaccine candidate, which is in phase-three clinical trials. At 8am sharp, the first 40 are admitted into two large rooms, given rapid lateral-flow tests and told what to expect if they are recruited as volunteers. Yosvany Rodríguez Muñoz, a 37-year-old doorman, is one of the lucky ones. Staff at the clinic measure his height, weight and blood pressure before giving him an appointment for the next day. After 28 days he will get a second dose.
Cuba is small, with just 11m people, and is short of basic goods such as rice and paracetamol. But its long history of medical research has stood it in relatively good stead during the pandemic. After the Communist revolution in 1959, half the island’s doctors fled abroad. In response Fidel Castro, the cigar-puffing dictator, pumped money into health care; he hoped pharma could be exportable, like sugar. Even during the economic collapse that followed the end of the Soviet Union and its subsidies in the early 1990s, in which gdp shrank by a third in three years, the Centre of Molecular Immunology (cim) opened in Havana. “There was no money for food, but there was a brand-new cancer-research facility that was expected to be worth the sacrifice,” recalls Ricardo Torres, a Cuban economist. Cuba produces 5m doses of simple or combined vaccines for various diseases for domestic use alone each year.