Cuba first with meningitis B vaccine

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Scientist Concepcion Campa Huergo led Cuban efforts to produce a Men B vaccine

From 1 September 2015 all babies in the UK will for the first time be offered a new meningitis B (MenB) vaccine called Bexsero, as part of the routine NHS childhood vaccination programme. According to the NHS Choices website, this ‘makes England [sic] the first country in the world to offer a national, routine and publicly funded MenB vaccination programme’. However, 27 years ago, socialist Cuba’s Finlay Institute, under the personal direction of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, developed a MenB vaccine also as part of its national immunisation programme. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was proud Britain ‘will be the first country in the world to have a nationwide MenB vaccination programme’ (The Guardian, 29 March 2015). So who was the ‘first’ country to the MenB vaccine, Britain next September or Cuba in 1988? Charles Chinweizu explains.

Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is any infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, or meningococcus. It is one of the groups of bacteria responsible for the life-threatening infections meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. Untreated, these conditions can lead to death within 24 hours. 10% of survivors suffer serious, long-term disabilities, including brain damage and amputations. Meningococcal disease is among the top ten global causes of death due to infection. There are 13 different forms or serogroups of Neisseria meningitidis, the most prevalent being serogroups A, B, C, W135, X and Y, each distinguished by possessing a particular set of antigens on their cell membrane or capsular surface. Serogroups A, B and C are by far the most common causes of the disease. Each serogroup can have more than one strain.

The global burden of meningococcal disease (65% of all cases, with serogroup A causing over 80% of those), is borne by sub-Saharan Africa’s 21-country ‘meningitis belt’ where epidemics occur every 5-12 years, due mainly to low socioeconomic conditions, overcrowding and a refusal by multinational drug companies to invest in developing treatments for ‘orphan diseases’, which affect fewer than 200,000 people and are thus not seen as profitable. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says there are 20,000-25,000 meningococcal deaths every year in Africa. In 2011 Indian vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute, developed the first heat-stable MenA vaccine for Africa, as part of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a unique partnership between the health NGO PATH and the WHO. Developed countries make up 15% of the global population but consume 82% of total sales of vaccines, dominated by multinational drug companies who focus on vaccines for disorders common in developed nations like cancer and diabetes, from which they can make a profit. This capitalist attitude is insular and counterproductive as meningococcal disease is a global problem, affecting countries regardless of climate or development, with a constantly changing epidemiology as new virulent strains evolve and spread.

Meningitis B

Serogroup B meningococcal disease is the most common in the UK, Europe and North America. The problem with fighting infection caused by meningococcus B is the similarity of its capsular polysaccharide structure to chemicals that make up human brain tissue, rendering a vaccine based on its capsular antigens ineffective, as the body does not recognise the bacteria as foreign and does not produce antibodies to fight it. Serogroup B meningococcal disease can be caused by hundreds of different strains and the bacterium has many different proteins on its surface. This makes Cuba’s feat 27 years ago all the more remarkable. Until 2014, only Cuba had developed a safe and effective vaccine against serogroup B. Now there are three: Cuba’s VA-MENGOC, GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) Bexsero and Pfizer’s Trumenba.

In 2015 GSK agreed to charge the NHS £20/dose (£16 million/annum) for ‘its’ MenB vaccine Bexsero, which it acquired from Swiss drug maker Novartis in 2014. GSK is counting on vaccines to deliver 14% of its total sales going forward – the sole reason for the acquisition. Swiss drug maker Novartis acquired the vaccine from the US’s Chiron in 2006. Chiron had been working on the vaccine for 20 years. The British vaccine isn’t even British! Ironically on 29 July 1999, the BBC reported that GSK, the ‘inventor’ of Bexsero, wanted to test Cuba’s vaccine VA-MENGOC-BC in Belgium but was restricted by the blockade, because its labs in Belgium were owned by the US subsidiary of GSK! At that time, the BBC admitted the ‘unique vaccine against meningitis... the only one of its kind against the deadly strain of meningitis B – was developed by Cuba’ (BBC News, Similarly, Pfizer’s Trumenba was actually developed by Wyeth which Pfizer acquired in 2009.

Cuba’s MenB vaccine

Cuba’s National Immunisation Programme (NIP) began in 1962, putting Cuba among the countries with the best indicators for vaccine-preventable diseases. In 1981 Cuba established a scientific body to explore the potential of biotechnology to meet the health, social and environmental needs of the Cuban population following the foundation of a biotech industry in the US. Cuba began to develop a biotech sector several years in advance of most imperialist countries except the US. Cuba has eradicated polio, neonatal tetanus, diphtheria, measles, rabies, mumps, whooping cough (pertussis) and congenital rubella. The current vaccine schedule targets all Cuban children for immunisation against 13 diseases with 11 vaccines, eight of which are produced in Cuba.

Following outbreaks of meningococcal disease in 1976 that reached unprecedented proportions, by 1984 there were 14.4 cases per 100,000 population and meningococcal disease became the main health problem in Cuba. At the time, vaccines against serogroups A, C, W135 and Y and were available, but none for serogroup B. The predominant serogroups in Cuba were B and C (35%). In 1983, the decision was made to establish a research team to develop an effective and safe vaccine against serogroup B meningococcus. After only six years of basic research, clinical trials and manufacturing scale-up, by 1988 a new vaccine, VA-MENGOC-BC, the first of its kind in the world, was produced, based on purified proteins from the outer membrane of a serogroup B strain, plus a purified capsular polysaccharide from a serogroup C meningococcus strain. It later won a UN Gold Medal award in recognition of the global innovation represented by the product.

By April 2012, Cuba, a low income, underdeveloped country was producing 33 different vaccines, 33 anti-cancer drugs, 18 products to treat cardiovascular disease and seven to treat a range of additional diseases. As of January 2013, more than 90 new products were being investigated in over 60 clinical trials. Cuban biotech currently holds around 1,200 international patents (Baden, Davis, Wilkinson, 2015, In contrast to Big Pharma’s profitability crises, Cuban biotech boasts a steady stream of new and innovative products, despite the cruel and genocidal 55-year US blockade imposed on Cuba which denies them access to resources and impedes the flow of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless smaller companies are taking notice: since 2011, French biotech firm Abivax has been working with Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and Cuba’s novel anti-viral therapeutic vaccine for chronic hepatitis B, is in trials in Asia Pacific. In April, Roswell Park Cancer Institute agreed with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) to develop a lung cancer vaccine and begin clinical trials in the US. Feinstein Institute for Medical Research has for six years worked with CIM on another lung cancer vaccine. Cuba is the first and only country in the world to have two lung cancer vaccines.

Twilight zone

NHS Choices is deliberately repeating a well-worn deception. The BBC, which in 1999 admitted the obvious truth, repeated these lies in a 21 June 2015 article ( Even scientific journals frequently repeat these mendacities: New Scientist’s Andy Coghlan in an article titled ‘UK to pioneer national meningitis B vaccination scheme’ claimed in March 2015 that the UK was ‘the first country in the world to have a nationwide vaccine programme for MenB’, whilst in 2012, Rino Rappuoli, head of R&D at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics claimed ‘broad protection against MenB remains elusive’. It is in his company’s interests to say so. In addition multinational drug companies have been working on a MenB vaccine for over 20 years, a scandalous waste of valuable time, lives and resources. When supporters of Rock around the Blockade challenged NHS Choices, its editor Kathryn Bingham argued that ‘the vaccines used in Cuba and New Zealand covered a single strain of MenB, whereas the vaccine to be used in England (Bexsero) offers significantly more protection as it is based on four main protein components found on the bacterial surface across most of the hundreds of different MenB strains ... [Meningitis Research Foundation] research has helped to show that neither the New Zealand or Cuban vaccines would cover the majority of MenB infection in the UK and the rest of Europe’. This still doesn’t make England ‘the first in the world’ – a completely bogus statement followed by an obfuscatory diversion. The argument over the strains of MenB and the narrowness of Cuba’s VA-MENGOC-BC is also exposed as bogus by the fact that VA-MENGOC-BC also covers the MenC serogroup which causes around 40% of cases in UK, US and Europe. VA-MENGOC-BC could have been used for MenC coverage between 1988-1999, when Britain introduced Chiron’s MenC vaccine. The superiority of socialism as evidenced by Cuban biotech is too much for the capitalists and their spokespersons to acknowledge, even at the cost of health and loss of thousands of lives.     

See ‘Take action: NHS lies about Cuba’ on the Rock around the Blockade website:

FRFI 246 August/September 2015