By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA, June 17 (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections have halved in Havana since authorities started administering Cuba’s experimental vaccines en masse in the capital a month ago, official data shows, raising hopes about their efficacy even as cases increase nationwide.

The cash-strapped country, which has a reputed state-run biotech sector, has declined to import vaccines but still hopes to be among the first in the region to have vaccinated its whole population by year-end.

Critics said that Cuba’s plan against COVID-19 hinges though on whether the vaccines prove effective – a risky bet to make as it traverses its worst outbreak yet, with overall cases reaching record highs and a lockdown compounding economic woes.

Authorities have yet to release efficacy data for its most advanced vaccine candidates from late phase trials but have said they hope to do so this month.

Cuba has five experimental shots in various stages of clinical trials, with two in late phase trials already being administered en masse to the population in intervention studies – in particular in Havana, one of the worst-hit areas.

Cases in the capital have halved over the past month from a peak of around 800 per day, which officials have suggested is due to both the vaccines and tighter restrictions on gatherings and movement.

“We need to continue as fast as possible (applying vaccine candidates) to see the impact together with the (prevention) measures … and to stop cases from continuing to rise,” Cuba’s top epidemiologist Francisco Duran said on Wednesday.

The decline in Havana contrasts starkly with the steady rise in infections and deaths in the rest of the country after the arrival of more contagious variants. Overall, cases hit a new high of 1,537 on Tuesday.

That puts new infections at more than twice the global average on a per capita basis, although accumulated infections and deaths from COVID-19 in Cuba since the start of the pandemic remain a fraction of rates worldwide as authorities had the outbreak tamed for most of last year.

Around 4.5% of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants have received all three doses required for the country’s two most advanced vaccine candidates, Abdala and Soberana 2, state-run media reported this week.

“I have a lot of faith in the Cuban vaccines,” said Havana resident and architect Ramón Ramírez Li, 37. “But we need to continue with the foot on the accelerator and staying careful every day.”

State-run biopharmaceutical corporation BioCubaFarma has talked about the potential for exporting the vaccines once the entire population is vaccinated. This would be a potential boon amid a tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo in recent years.

An array of countries have already expressed an interest, particularly those that are politically aligned with Communist-ruled Cuba.

Iran is even conducting its own late phase trials of Soberana 2 and Cuban state-run media said this week it could announce its authorization for emergency use shortly.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s Health Minister Jose Portal held online talks on Wednesday with his Vietnamese counterpart to propose transferring vaccine production technology, Vietnam’s state-run news agency reported.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Grant McCool)

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