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Iran, Cuba, Under U.S. Sanctions, Team Up for Covid-19 Vaccine Trials

Iran and Cuba have begun trials of a joint Covid-19 vaccine, as Tehran fights the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East while pledging not to use vaccines from the U.S. and U.K.

The Cuban vaccine, called Soberana 02, is the most advanced of Cuba’s four vaccine candidates and will be developed in cooperation between Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute and Iran’s Pasteur Institute, authorities from both countries said Monday.

The cooperation between two staunch opponents of the U.S., which are both under U.S. sanctions, reflects a shared drive for self-sufficiency and less reliance on imports from the West. The name of the vaccine, Soberana, is Spanish for “sovereign.”

A Covid-19 victim being buried at a cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Ghaemshahr, in northern Iran, in December.

Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said the country of 80 million wouldn’t import vaccines from the U.S. or the U.K, calling the vaccines untrustworthy. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. and the U.K. of wanting to use Iranians for trials.

The president of Iran’s Medical Council, Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi, said Monday that the country would import two million Covid-19 vaccines from India, China and Russia by March, far below what is needed to fulfill President Hassan Rouhani’s recent pledge to inoculate 60 million Iranians.

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Cuba’s public-health officials said they need to conduct Phase 3 trials abroad because the island doesn’t have a big enough outbreak to get meaningful statistics on vaccine protection.

Vicente Vérez, the head of Cuba’s Finlay institute, recently told Cuba’s state media that to demonstrate the efficacy of vaccines they need to be tested in settings where the population has a lot of exposure to the virus and there are many ways for the virus to propagate.

While Cuba’s isolation has helped it keep a lid on the pandemic, Iran has been the hardest-hit country in the Middle East. Iran is logging about 6,000 cases a day, a decrease from a high of more than 14,000 in late November. More than 56,000 Iranians have died from Covid-19. Cuba has recorded about 15,000 cases and 153 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Iranian officials from the Pasteur Institute are currently in Havana to supervise a smaller second phase of Cuban trials. Starting in late January and running through March, Cuba will carry out a Phase 3 trial on 150,000 Cubans and Iran will test the vaccine on 50,000 Iranian volunteers, according to health officials in both countries. The Soberana 02 is a protein-subunit vaccine, according to the Finlay Vaccine Institute.

Iran will also transfer production technology to Cuba, which aims to have its population of about 11 million immunized with its own vaccines within the next six months.

Cuba’s isolation has helped it keep a lid on the pandemic. People in Havana on Monday.

Photo: Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

For Communist Cuba, the vaccine rollout is crucial for a country mired in economic stagnation, hard hit by President Trump’s decisions to impose damaging sanctions and reverse efforts by the Obama administration to improve ties with the former Cold War foe.

On Monday, the U.S. government put Cuba back on the list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that is likely to complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to improve relations with Havana.

“Cuba and Iran continue to resist the most cruel and inhumane sanctions of the U.S. government, which have been intensified in times of the Covid-19 pandemic in direct contradiction to the spirit of cooperation and respect for the right to life of our people,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The launch of joint Iran-Cuba vaccine trials comes after many years of scientific collaboration between the two countries, and follows a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in November to Havana, where Mr. Zarif praised Cuba’s achievements in the fight against Covid-19.

—Santiago Pérez in Mexico City contributed to this article.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]

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