Tag Archives: ventilators

tackling Covid-19 the Cuban way

As of October 19th, the island of Cuba with its population of 11.2 million had reported just 6,258 cases of Covid-19 and only 127 deaths. None of these fatalities included healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, since the earliest days of outbreak in March, nearly four thousand Cuban medical specialists have assisted in the treatment of more than 350,000 Covid-19 patients in nearly 40 countries. This flood of humanitarian aid was provided by Cuba’s Nobel Peace Prize nominated Henry Reeve Brigades who were deployed in spite of the Trump administration severely tightening sanctions against Cuba, which blocked revenues and generated domestic scarcities of oil, food and medical goods.

In the same period, Cuba’s prestigious biotech industry has also been at the vanguard of treatments with clinical trials underway for thirteen separate Covid-19 related products.

On RT’s Going Underground, Afshin Rattansi spoke with Dr. Helen Yaffe, who is economic historian at the University of Glasgow and co-presenter of a new documentary entitled Cuba & Covid-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity; a film based around interviews with leading Cuban scientists, community doctors as well as one member of the Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent who travelled to Lombardy in Italy.

In the interview Helen Yaffe explained:

“The Cuban biotech sector is quite unique – the way it was founded very early on in the development of biotechnology as a field – it was founded 1981, so that was after only the second biotech firm in the United States, and the situation [which] is consistent with their socialist planned economy is its 100% state owned. All of the different institutions in the Western Scientific Pole which is in Havana cooperate, they don’t compete. They don’t seek to make a profit on their domestic production.

“The whole industry is set up to meet public health demands of the population. There’s incredible interfacing between the public health sector and the education sector. So it’s a model that essentially undermines this mainstream discourse that says “only the free market, only in pursuit of profit through competition can we have efficient outcomes”.

“Now, I would say that the responses we’ve seen in countries around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic have kind of exposed the values and the principles under which each society is organised. And it has also invited us to question the meaning of efficiency when we have a public health need that cannot be met by this speculative race for profits, because even if there is a race now for a vaccine, there are too many questions to be asked about how poor countries will be able to access those and at what cost. Will it bankrupt nations to be able to access vaccines that they need to save lives?

“For the Cubans, because of the US blockade, it’s been vitally important that they’ve worked towards their own vaccine. I mean we saw with the announcement about the Pfizer trial, the share prices you know immediately respond and you have to wonder what’s driving this process.

“I would say that it is also true that in the Global South there’s a great deal of cooperation with the Cuban biotech sector, and these Henry Reeve Brigades have been taking some of the products that have been adapted or developed specifically for Covid-19 and using them all around the world. I would expect there would be a great deal more cooperation after this pandemic because the Cuban medicines are really showing some promise – there’s even a British joint venture that has been set up to look at the potential for preventing death in critically ill and seriously ill patients.” [from 3:50 min]

Regarding the obstacles presented by US sanctions, Yaffe says:

The issue of US sanctions is a difficult one. There is UK legislation that makes it illegal for the US blockade to be enforced against individuals and companies in Britain and the same applies in Europe. The question of why that legislation is not actively pursued (is not enforced through British courts); that’s another issue. But the collaboration that took place with UCL [University College London] essentially they made available one of their CPAP ventilators which the Cubans took themselves and were able to copy – they also then used parts that were able to create these machines that was fundraised through a group in Britain called Cubanos en UK  (Cubans in the UK). But you know even for that fundraising campaign to save lives they have to be very careful about which platforms they use and how they share the information, because money raised for humanitarian (cultural events and issues) has been confiscated from Eventbrite, Paypal and other platforms because of the US blockade. [from 6:55 min]

On why the Cuban healthcare system has coped so efficiently, she says:

“I think the documentary tried to make clear that the essential tool on the way that Cuba has been able to control contagion is the family healthcare medical practices. So these are family doctors [who] exist in every community – Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors per person. 26,000 family doctors are in the community; they live among their patients. Even the doctors and their families and the nurses and their families live in the clinics: so help is available twenty-four hours per day.

“They have a system where they catagorise the health status of all of their community. So they immediately know if a disease like Covid comes along that affects people with respiratory problems, who are the vulnerable patients. And the most incredible element of their response to Covid-19 has been to increase a process that they do anyway, which is going to visit every home in their community. And they’ve been assisted by 28,000 medical students who of course couldn’t carry on studies because their universities were closed – they joined the family doctors and they went door-to-door every day.

“So they were in teams where they knocked on a hundred doors and they asked everyone in the house, you know, how they were feeling, and they were basically tracking down symptoms. When they had a suspected case, instead of leaving them in the community, they were withdrawn and taken to a medical facility or an isolation centre where they would be tested – it was obligatory supervised quarantine in these isolation centres for two weeks. Now they’ve got the disease under control, the isolation is taking place at home.

“But they were also doing contact tracing in a very serious way – not just text messages – but turning up at people’s doors, removing anyone who had been in contact out of circulation until they had been tested themselves. So they took it really seriously and this is entirely consistent with the approach of the Cuban healthcare system, which is prevention over cure, and having this network of family doctors at a grassroots level.” [from 8:55 min]

From a review of the documentary:

Based on interviews with top scientists, community doctors and medical internationalists, this documentary explores Cuba’s outstanding domestic and international response to the global pandemic. From Cuba’s extraordinary biotech sector we interview Dr Luis Herrera Martínez, who led the team that produced the Cuban anti-viral drug Interferon Alfa 2b in 1986 and is now a scientific adviser to BioCubaFarma; Dr Gerardo Guillén, Director of Biomedical Research at the world-leading Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which has produced some of the innovative drugs on Cuba’s Covid-19 treatment protocol; and Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa, Director General of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, which was charged with manufacturing the medical equipment required during the pandemic.

We interview a family doctor from Havana, who conducts daily door-to-door health checks to track down the virus and slow community transmission, and a medical student who was among 28,000 others to join the public health campaign as universities were shut down. We hear from Jesús Ruiz Alemán, a member of the Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent who went to Lombardy in Italy when it was the epicenter of the global pandemic.

Click here to read the same review at cubanos.org.uk.

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corona marginalia: “Operation Last Gasp”

It is ten days since the UK government took its first steps to tackle the shortage of NHS ventilators, when Boris Johnson, along with Michael Gove, “joined a conference call with more than 60 manufacturing businesses to rally them in a national effort to produce more equipment.”

Politico reported at that time that the government’s aim was to have the necessary ventilators “on stream” within two weeks. We also learned that Johnson had joked about how this request to build more life-saving ventilators might be remembered as “Operation Last Gasp.” 1

Yesterday another reason behind the government’s delay in the procurement of essential medical equipment was revealed by the Guardian, when it reported (initially at least):

Downing Street has declined to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because the UK is “no longer a member” and is “making our own efforts”.

Critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing” after No 10 said it did not need to participate in the EU effort to procure equipment to fight coronavirus.

The EU has said it is open to the UK taking part in the programme, which seeks to use its bulk-buying power to get new ventilators at the best price.

The UK has instead chosen to source ventilators from British manufacturers who have never made the products before, ordering 10,000 machines from the household appliance firm Dyson.

Asked why the UK was not taking part, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We are no longer members of the EU.” He also stressed that the UK was “making our own efforts” in this area. 2

However, this Guardian article was quickly reedited, and replaced with a different version that retains the same URL whilst providing (as of writing) no notification of any update.

According to the revised account, the government’s failure to cooperate with the EU scheme had never been a policy decision, but was simply “a mix-up” over an email and that the government “would consider participating in future”:

Downing Street has claimed it failed to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because it accidentally missed the deadline.

No 10 initially said it did not take part because the UK was “no longer a member” and was “making our own efforts”.

But after critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing”, a No 10 spokesman clarified that it had missed out because of an error and would consider participating in future. It is understood the UK claims not to have received an email from the EU asking it to participate.

The mix-up means the UK has missed out on benefiting from the collective buying power of the EU. The bloc is seeking to use its clout to source large numbers of ventilators and protective equipment.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As the commission has confirmed, we are eligible to participate in joint procurements during the transition period, following our departure from the EU earlier this year.

“As those four initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender, we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time.” 3

Click here to read the revised Guardian article freshly titled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme”.

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Update: Proof that the government lied

Shortly after posting this it came to my attention that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had already confessed to knowing about the EU ventilator scheme because he drew attention to it on last week’s BBC1 Question Time (March 19th). So it wasn’t “a mix-up” after all – that was just fake news:

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Further evidence has since come to light “that heap doubt on government claims of missing an email” in a subsequent Guardian article published on March 30th:

EU minutes seen by the Guardian show that a British official joined eight out of 12 EU health security committee meetings dedicated to the Covid-19 outbreak since the group was set up earlier this year, shortly before China’s Hubei province was put into lockdown.

At least four of those meetings discussed EU procurement schemes on: 31 January, 4 February, 2 March and 13 March.

While the government marked Brexit day on 31 January, a British representative joined EU member states and commission officials to discuss what was then called “the cluster of pneumonia cases associated with novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”.

At this meeting, four EU member states said the virus could require increased stocks in Europe of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks and goggles, and the commission said it was ready to help if asked.

The EU executive stated it was ready to help countries bulk-buy medical equipment on 4 February. By 2 March, officials at the commission’s health department reported that 20 EU countries wanted to join a procurement scheme for personal protective equipment, such as overalls, gloves and face-shields. Later that month, on 13 March, EU officials discussed the combined purchase of ventilators.

Peter Liese, a German MEP and medical doctor who sits on the European parliament’s public health committee, said there had also been telephone calls between British and EU officials about the EU procurement scheme. “I know that they [British officials] were at a working level interested in joint procurement,” he told the Guardian.

The veteran German MEP dismissed UK government claims they missed an email. “It was not that they were not aware, but it was a decision not to participate,” he said. “If you are interested you don’t wait for an email.”

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “UK discussed joint EU plan to buy Covid-19 medical supplies, say officials” written by Jennifer Rankin, published on March 30th.

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1 From an article entitled “POLITICO London Playbook: The age of corona – Rishi leads the fightback – Commons rule change” written by Jack Blanchard, published in Politico on March 17, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/newsletter/london-playbook/politico-london-playbook-the-age-of-corona-rishi-leads-the-fightback-commons-rule-change/

2 From an article entitled “No 10 accused of putting ‘Brexit over breathing’ in Covid-19 ventilator row” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (10:31 EDT) https://web.archive.org/web/20200326170654/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row

3 From an article entitled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (18.25 GMT) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row

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