Vicente Vérez Bencomo: The obsession to make vaccines and save lives

Vicente Vérez Bencomo: The obsession to make vaccines and save lives
Fecha de publicación: 
22 November 2021
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And so confessed, in an exclusive interview to CubaSí, the General Director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute shortly after being granted the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa in Chemical Sciences by the University of Havana.

Doctor Vérez Bencomo is one of those scientists every Cuban would like to embrace and show gratitude, especially these days when Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus, immunogens created by the team he leads, already protect the majority of our children.

Thus, out of infinite admiration, we asked him what this degree means to him and he answered with humility and the most endearing sense of belonging:

"This is a very important recognition to me because it is granted by the University of Havana, where I spent thirty years of my life, where we created the first major vaccine against the Haemophilus Influenza typeB, a synthetic antigen, and I really take it as a recognition to the group effort, to the effort we have made for so many years trying to make vaccines, trying to do science to make vaccines to save lives. In short, this is what we have tried to do for years, developing different sciences, from Chemistry, going through the most basic sciences, to applied sciences and it is actually an exciting moment, a moment that made me review my career, my life. And I want to thank especially all those who have contributed in nearly forty years of professional life".

Is Chemistry your basic training?

"I am a chemical engineer. I studied in the Soviet Union. In 1977, I joined the University of Havana and I was there for thirty years. There, precisely, we tried to develop synthetic chemistry as a way to make vaccines and well, we were successful as we made the vaccine against the Haemophilus Influenza typeB. From then on, it basically became an obsession in our lives as we tried, with chemical means, to develop vaccines to prevent diseases that, otherwise, would lead to the death of children. In addition, we are talking about vaccines that existed already, but they were actually too expensive, inaccessible to poor countries. For example, the pneumococcal vaccine started with 100 dollars per dose, four doses...impossible to think of a child living in one poor country having access to this vaccine, whose full vaccination scheme would cost his family $400 USD. So, this was the core of our philosophy, we need to make our own vaccines to be sovereign."

"The President called us now. Yes, but that is not something new. It is something that we have always applied, from the beginning, because all these vaccines with a huge impact on science, are very expensive, economically inaccessible to the country and therefore, the strategy was to do ours."

However, the circumstances in which you faced the challenge of Soberana have been unique…

"Not only the circumstances, Soberana owns a different story. It is a frenetic one, where we really had to learn and do it in fast. Therefore, it really led to a greater level of tension. We could not make mistakes. If we were wrong, we would be delayed and well, it has really been a beautiful story, which has allowed us to enjoy the successes although we suffer a lot with some setback along the way. But it has been a very exciting moment."

Would you say it has been your greatest challenge?

“Of course, we fought a virus which was unknown to all of us two years ago. We had to learn from it in a hurry. But we succeeded and we are very pleased with it.”

And doing science from a country like Cuba, how much influence does it have from the perspective and vocation of a scientist?

“If you have into account that a major multinational such as Pfizer develops a great vaccine —because it is a very good vaccine— but this vaccine is made so they can earn $81 billion USD in 2021, you realize things get messed up when earnings become the goal of what you do and obviously, a major company that expects to earn such amount of money in 2021 and has the capacity to invest $10 billion USD, that is totally a different world and we are not there. We have to have enough resilience to face, with the resources we have, with the capacities we have, what is really feasible regardless of our resources, and keep moving on.”

I would say all these make your feat greater…

“It is a great satisfaction that we were able to prove, with evidence, that our vaccine can be used in children before Pfizer did, despite all the support that company has. So, that is the sort of challenge that scientists from poor nations have, if we aim to be competitive. Besides, we are not any less than other groups of scientists elsewhere. So, when you achieve it, you feel great.”

How many tense moments did you experience during these months?

There were several tense situations. When you do your job and you see no results, you have to have the ability to notice it and never be in conformity and think it will work. Therefore, you have to be open minded to realize where there might be a road that leads nowhere and change fast the course of action. That is part of the work we have had to do to achieve the goal.”

And what about the greatest satisfactions?

"When results come out. For example, the results in children are spectacular. The safety in children is very high, the immune response of children is very high. So that has been a moment of great satisfaction."

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Díaz / CubaSí Translation Staff

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