By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba will begin vaccinating adolescents against COVID-19 this week and younger children from mid-September as part of a drive to immunize more than 90% of the population by December, state-run media said on Wednesday.
All children ages 2 through 18 will receive at least two doses of the Cuban-developed Soberana-2 vaccine beginning Sept. 3, the official Cubadebate digital news outlet reported.
Health Ministry official Ileana Morales Suarez was quoted as saying the campaign would resemble annual vaccinations against various childhood diseases, taking place at thousands of community-based family medical practices and clinics.
Trials of the vaccine in minors found it to be safe and that it elicited a stronger immune response than in adults, according to state-owned manufacturer Finlay Institute.
The decision was announced at a weekly meeting of leaders and scientists to confront the pandemic on the Communist-run Caribbean island currently battling a Delta variant-driven surge that has strained its health system and hit the younger population much harder than previous versions of the virus.
Over the past week, Cuba averaged between 6,500 and 7,000 cases per day and 70 to 80 deaths, down significantly from a few weeks ago but still one of the highest rates in the world in terms of cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
Vaccination of the adult population primarily using another locally-developed shot, Abdala, will be stepped up with the goal of ensuring all eligible adults have at least begun the three-shot-treatment by the end of the month.
Cubans are desperate to get their kids back in school after months of home schooling, a prospect postponed again this September.
The country is suffering shortages of everything from food and medicine to parts and inputs for power plants and agriculture, due to closure of the tourism industry, tough U.S. sanctions and its own inefficiencies.
It desperately wants to tame the disease in time for the tourism season that begins in November.
Both Cuban vaccines, with a reported efficacy of more than 90%, have been approved by local regulators for emergency use, although the data has not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.
In the capital, Havana, where more than 60% of the 2.2 million residents are fully vaccinated, cases and deaths per 100,000 residents are far below the national average, according to government statistics.
Currently around 50% of Cuba’s 11.3 million residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, with more than 3.5 million fully vaccinated.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Bill Berkrot)