Cuba has, or is about to, become the first country to vaccinate children aged two and up against COVID-19 outside a scientific trial. However, since the vaccine being used is one of the island nation's own making, rather than one of those widely used elsewhere, the applicability of the results elsewhere will be imperfect.
Vaccination of children aged 12 and older began on Sunday, according to government-controlled media outlets, and will be extended to those aged 2-11 next week. AFP, however, reports that in the province of Cienfuegos younger vaccinations have already begun. The reopening of schools, largely shut since March 2020, is conditional on all children being vaccinated. That's even more important than in most countries, since Cuba lacks widespread home Internet access, and children are currently being taught via TV, with no opportunity for interaction.
Most vaccination against diseases such as measles or polio takes place before children turn four. However, with the initial variety of COVID-19 primarily affecting the elderly, protection started at the other end of life. However, with some countries having vaccinated most of the adults willing to get the shot, and variants having killed at least 59 children in Texas alone, the arguments are shifting. Moreover, all along children have been major spreaders of the disease, even if they suffered few symptoms, so there has always been an argument vaccinating children was necessary to control the disease as a whole.
Nevertheless, this is an area where governments have trod warily. The possibility of serious side-effects among children, even in tiny numbers, is a deep-seated concern. So far no one outside Cuba has been begun vaccinating anyone under 12, except under a carefully controlled trial. Several nations – most notably China – have expressed an intention to do so, with Chile expressing an intention to start soon.
Cuba, however, is something of a special case. Exceptionally proud of its medical system and biotech sector, Cuba produced the Abdala and Soberana COVID-19 vaccines and started mass vaccination in June. Neither has been scientifically reviewed internationally, and both are treated with suspicion by health agencies in wealthy nations.
Cuba also survived 2020 almost COVID-free thanks to effective test and trace programs and, at least according to official figures, had relatively low case rates until numbers exploded in late June and July this year. Its death rates per capita are still at levels most countries would envy, but are rising fast, presumably contributing to recent unrest.
Cuba's vaccines are all subunit protein vaccines, making them cheap to produce and easy to distribute compared to the mRNA vaccines most used in Europe and North America. However, while Cuba claims Soberana with a booster shot matches Pfizer's for effective protection, it has yet to release the data allowing independent confirmation.
If, however, the vaccines are as good as the Cuban government claims, infections should plunge soon, with most of the country soon to be vaccinated, if they are not already.