Latin American scientists are battling this fear since the start of COVID-19. During the pandemic, students volunteered to produce safe equipment for the health care workers in their country, but scientists knew they needed to do more. Despite challenges faced, Latin American scientists made strong contributions that are beneficial not only their own countries but also to their neighbors.
Making Latin America very proud, Uruguay is the country with the smallest number of cases, less than 2000 cases and less than 500 deaths. This is thanks to an efficient universal health care early action, and active communication. In an article in the British Medical Journal, Uruguay was praised as “having a lid” on COVID-19.
“Uruguay continues to provide hope” for the region, says Marcos Espinal, the head of the Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis department at the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). The country’s response could offer various lessons to the region and the world,” the BMJ article noted.
But despite being one of the most developed countries in the area and having such a solid response, Uruguay also showed how easy it is to lose control of the virus, with cases in early 2021 surging to unprecedented levels.
Uruguay was also involved in research throughout the pandemic. In the earlier stages, WHO recommended a more conservative method to diagnose SARS-CoV-2, but scientists from Universidad de la República and Institut Pasteur de Montevideo decided to develop a direct and cheaper method to test the disease and deploy large-scale testing. It is called a quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction(qPCR).
Their idea became reality and soon they prepared tests that are used in the country to detect COVID-19. In weeks, Uruguay had kits to test its population with the help of a lab network between public hospitals and the academia, around 1000 tests a day. This level of efficiency made one of the researchers involved, Gonzalo Moratorio, become one of Nature’s 10. This also turned out to be one of the key methods through which Uruguay kept the virus in check for the better part of a year.
That’s not all: the Uruguayan $13 kits received funding from Mercosur (Southern Common Market) in order to produce more kits to distribute in other countries. However, Uruguay was also quick to deploy another measure to help contain the virus: closing off most of its borders to international travel.
KCOVID-19 RT-PCR Real TM Fast – kits for diagnosis
Institut Pasteur and Universidad de la República – Uruguay
Mexico was the first Latin American country to start vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech. They have recently approved Sputinik V and plan to use the single dose Convidencia, a vaccine developed in China by the CanSino Biologics, which recently showed 67% efficacy.
Mexico suffered greatly as 2020 was the year the world lost Mario Molina, Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry for the discovery of effects of CFCs in ozone-depleting during his postdoctoral research. This work influenced the United Nations to create the Montreal Protocol. Despite being a professor at University of California San Diego, his advocacy towards making face masks mandatory was wall-known by Mexican citizens.
Months before his death he was involved in a study to understand the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through aerosols. It stated the transmissions could be highly reduced using face masks. The problem was there were serious flaws in the publication, some epidemiologists even asked for the removal of the publication. The methodology did not give enough credit to social distancing restrictions and lacked a more sophisticated statistical analysis. We now know the importance of face masks thanks to more cautious research, some similar analysis even cite the study.
The second worst country facing COVID-19 situation has received hope recently. Two vaccines are being used now for emergency use, CoronaVac and AstraZeneca. The vaccination started in January with the CoronaVac, its arrival was so celebrated there is even a popular song for it.
The Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac is going to be produced in the country by the supervision of Instituto Butantan in São Paulo. The vaccine has 50,38% global efficacy, but more importantly 100% efficacy against moderate and severe cases, a major help for a country in the verge of collapsing its health care system. Alongside CoronaVac, the other vaccine that will be produced in Brazil is the Oxford-AstraZeneca the cheapest around the world. The Brazilian will produce it with the help of Fundação Oswaldo (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro.
A group made of only Brazilian scientists from Fiocruz, Instituto Vital Brazil, and the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro are also developing a serum to treat SARS-CoV-2 patients. It uses antibodies from horses, more specifically a glycoprotein, a technique usually used by Vital Brazil to produce hyperimmune serums. What the scientists do is inject the virus in the horses, who don’t get sick, so they produce the antibodies. It is estimated that 80 horses can produce enough plasma for 10,000 ampoules ofthe serum. The team is waiting for the approval of the beginning of the trials by Anvisa (Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency).
The Caribbean country enjoys a lot of fame for its medical prowess and its diplomatic mission of sending doctors across the globe — the pandemic didn’t change that. Cuban doctors arrived in 40 different countries during the pandemic.
Cuba has had around 150 deaths and less than 12,000 cases. Now the race is on to vaccinate its population, with 4 studies being held in the country, the Cuban government plans to start vaccination during the first quarter of the year.
Soberana 2, developed by the Instituto Finlay de Vacunas, is the most promising vaccine they have right now. The phase 3 tests will be held with the help of Iran. The vaccine is a promising safe immunizer for infants and the elderly, it has part of the virus protein and is mixed with the tetanus vaccine. Another two vaccines in development are Abdala and Soberana 1 (also from a Finlay study) are still in phase 2.
But the interesting one is Mambisa which is delivered through a nasal spray, people who suffer from needle phobia may be glad to hear about this. Mambisa, which is in phase 1, uses part of the receptor-binding domain protein from coronavirus and a stimulus for the immune system using a protein from hepatitis B.
The same technique used for the Brazilian serum was already approved by the ANMAT (Argentinian Health Regulatory Agency). It reduced mortality in 45% of patients experiencing the severe stages of the disease. The serum was developed by the biotech company Inmunova. It started being administered in January, a more advanced pace compared to other countries also trying the same method such as Brazil.
The therapy was developed by using the recombinant receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the virus to stimulate antibody production in mice and horses. Whereas the Brazilian study uses a different antigen, the trimeric spike (S) glycoprotein.
In the meantime, the Argentinian government didn’t stray away from Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and decided to import it in December. The doubts towards Sputnik did not scare ANMAT, so they accepted it under emergency use. Well, now we actually have some confirmation so that’s excellent news for Argentina, although Argentina may not receive all the vaccines it expects for a while.
Therapies and vaccines being developed in Latin America.
Much like global heating, the ongoing pandemic is a challenge that requires both global and local solutions. It’s not just the most developed countries that can make a difference in the middle of a crisis, and even less so when facing science denial. Hopeful news like that shown here should be celebrated and serve as motivation for developing countries, without fueling selfish nationalistic policies that will make things even worse for everyone.