COVID-19: Cuban Interferon in China

Angel Guerra Cabrera selection by the Chinese health authorities of Cuban interferon alpha 2B(IFRrec) among 30 other drugs to combat the new coronavirus Covid-19 should come as no surprise.

In fact, there is a Sino-Cuban joint venture in Jilin province that, with Cuban technology, has been producing the drug since 2007, which has been used with good results by the Chinese health system to combat viral diseases, especially hepatitis B and C.

The product can also be used to treat HIV infections, respiratory papillomatosis caused by human papilloma and condyloma acuminatum.

“Interferon alpha 2B has the advantage that in situations such as these it is a mechanism to protect oneself, its use prevents patients with the possibility of getting worse and more complicated from reaching that stage, and eventually leading to death,” said Dr. Luis Herrera Martínez, one of the creators of the recombinant INF in Cuba and today scientific and commercial advisor to the Cuban business group BioCubaFarma, holder of the patent, manufacturer and distributor of this and other products of Cuban biotechnology.

But it is natural that news like this should cause strangeness or curiosity in many people, since Cuba is a poor, underdeveloped country, subject to the merciless blockade of the United States and this may incline one to doubt that it has a biotechnology industry of international scope. There is also the tremendous difficulty that the largest of the Antilles is one of the countries about which the dominant media machine is most misinformed.

Many Mexicans can better explain this in these times, when they see on a daily basis the grotesque way in which most of the national and international media deform the reality about the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. These are the same media that also silence the economic, social, humanistic and scientific achievements that Cuba achieves in the midst of Washington’s redoubled harassment because their editorial interest is to disqualify it.

That’s why many don’t know that already in 1965 Fidel Castro inspired the emergence of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNIC), where many young medical graduates voluntarily answered his call to train as researchers. Gradually, new research centers emerged from the harvest of the CNIC.

By then, Fidel had given an enormous boost to the development of medical science and research in this field and was looking for new scientific findings and technologies to strengthen the public and universal health system created by the Cuban Revolution. So in 1981, he asked the American oncologist Randolph Lee Clark, who was visiting Havana, what was new in the cure for cancer. His interlocutor told him about work being done on a new drug called interferon at the Anderson Hospital and Tumoral Institute in Texas, which he was directing.

The comandante was interested in the possibility of sending Cuban professionals to familiarize themselves with the new product, which only existed in a few first-world countries, and Clark agreed to receive two researchers, something that was possible at the time because Trump was not in the White House. The Cubans accomplished the mission but could not bring INF back to the island because the U.S. hospital still received it from Finland, where it was produced under the direction of Professor Kari Kantel, in Helsinki.

The envoys, summoned by Fidel upon his arrival in Cuba, explained to him the need for a group of researchers to carry out an internship in Dr. Kantel’s laboratory to learn how to produce the INF of blood cells banks. Not many days could pass between the time when the leader of the Cuban Revolution heard such a suggestion and the departure of the researchers to Helsinki.

Fidel, concerned like very few heads of state about the health of his compatriots and, it must be said, of humanity, saw in the new product the possibility of saving many lives. This explains not only the trip of five Cubans and one Cuban to the Kantel center in Finland, but also the fact that less than four months after their return to Cuba, they already had the first quantities of INF of blood cells produced on the island and very soon of recombinant INF, which allows for greater production and is the desirable type in most diseases.

In the island the appearance of the INF coincided with a great epidemic of dengue, which allowed that a quantity of serious cases were treated with the new product successfully.  Thus, in 1981, Cuba became the first Third World country to produce INF.

From this initiative emerged the Center for Biological Research and five years later an institution with much more complex and ambitious goals from the scientific point of view: the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

Interferon is a substance made by cells of the immune system of vertebrate animals and can be produced in large quantities in the laboratory. Refined from bacteria or yeast, it is called recombinant and counteracts the viral diseases mentioned in the first part of this article. It is also useful to help fight certain types of cancer and other viral diseases such as Covid-19.

When China decided to use interferon alpha 2B(IFRrec) to fight Covid-19 there were not enough quantities of the drug in the warehouses of the Chinese-Cuban company Chang Heber. Its executive director Li Wenlan explains: “Upon learning of the serious outbreak of the new coronavirus in China and the urgent need for the original interferon for the production of antiviral drugs, the Cuban side postponed its previous import orders to China.

In addition, it appointed a group of Cuban experts to provide assistance to China. By deferring Cuba’s receipt of quantities of IFRrec produced by Chang Heber to China, it was possible to shorten from about 50 to 21 days the time frame for making a certain amount of the product available to Chinese patients.

Cuban cooperation was mentioned in a telephone conversation between President Xi Jinping and his Cuban counterpart Miguel Díaz-Canel. Xi said that China greatly appreciates the understanding that the Cuban side and President Díaz-Canel himself have shown in China’s efforts against the epidemic.

It is very interesting that in this talk, around February 28, the Chinese leader already stated that “the positive trend” in the prevention and control of Covid-19 “was gaining strength” and that his country had “full confidence, capacity and certainty” that it would win the battle against the epidemic. The facts have confirmed XI’s claim, with the steady decline in China of the number of infected and dead, lately almost exclusively in Hubei, whose capital Wuhan is the epicentre of the epidemic.

The fact that the 16 provisional hospitals set up in Hubei for the treatment of the disease have already been closed and that on Monday the 5th only 19 cases were presented in the whole of China, two of them imported, demonstrates the robustness, the humanism and the capacity to efficiently solve very complex problems that characterize the social-political system of the Asian giant, contrary to what the racist, anti-communist and anti-Chinese slanders and lies of the Western hegemonic media claim.

In the telephone conversation, Xi added that China is willing to continue cooperation with Cuba in the fields of medicine and epidemic control. China and Cuba “are good friends, good comrades and good brothers who can depend on each other in difficult times and are as close as lips and teeth.

The Chinese leader recalled that this year is the 60th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations and added that his country will take the opportunity to raise to new levels the bilateral exchanges and cooperation in different fields from a new historical starting point.

I do not remember reading warmer words from the Chinese leader to another country. For his part, Mr Díaz-Canel stressed that this experience has fully demonstrated China’s capacity for mobilisation and the advantages of the socialist system. He added that China’s timely and effective response made outstanding contributions to controlling the spread of the epidemic, which has been highly appreciated by the international community, including the UN and the WHO.

Interferon, said Dr. Luis Herrera, was the inspiration for Cuban biotechnology. The commander, always a visionary, took this product as if it were a lever and around it he developed natural production and created the basis for intensive development of genetic engineering. The maturation of a biotechnology industry on the island is expressed by the emergence of the powerful Biocubafarma Business Group which employs more than 22 thousand workers, exports to more than 50 countries, holds 1800 patents outside Cuba and its annual income amounts to around 2 billion dollars, a totally new item in Cuban exports, which has also made a substantial contribution to the health of the people.

Among the institutions attached to the group are the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the Center for Laboratory Animal Production, the National Center for Biopreparations, the Immunoassay Center and the Center for Molecular Immunology.Cuba has created very prestigious unique medicines: among others, Heberprot-P, for the cure of diabetic foot; the CIMAvax-EFG C vaccine has opened a hope for the survival of people suffering from lung cancer; PPG, used mainly to lower cholesterol, but has been shown to have antiaggregate, antiisquemic and antithrombotic effects; VA-MENGOC-BC is the only effective vaccine in the world that attacks meningococci B and C.