Reports of Russian-Nicaraguan Biotechnology Institute in Managua Being Activated to Produce an Antiviral Drug that Has Been Used to Fight COVID-19

On March 20, Russia’s state-owned Sput­nik report­ed that Nicaragua’s Mech­nikov Latin Amer­i­can Biotech­nol­o­gy Insti­tute, a joint project between the gov­ern­ment of Nicaragua and the Fed­er­al Med­ical-Bio­log­i­cal Agency (FMBA) of Rus­si­a’s Min­istry of Health, would attempt to man­u­fac­ture Inter­fer­on Alfa 2‑B, a Cuban antivi­ral drug com­mon­ly used to treat dis­eases for which treat­ments are unavail­able.  Inter­fer­on Alfa 2‑B has report­ed­ly been among sev­er­al antivi­ral drugs used to fight the coro­n­avirus out­break in Chi­na.  Sources indi­cate a Cuban med­ical team is already on the ground in Man­agua, where it is review­ing the plant before com­menc­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Spurred from a 2013 Russ­ian-Nicaraguan inter­gov­ern­men­tal frame­work, with approx­i­mate­ly 66% of the $24.5 mil­lion Insti­tute fund­ed by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, the plant envis­aged devel­op­ment of low-cost vac­cines (for a num­ber of dis­eases, but par­tic­u­lar­ly the flu) for the Latin Amer­i­can mar­ket.  It was also per­ceived to be a jump­start for Moscow’s inten­tions to build addi­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal facil­i­ties across Latin Amer­i­ca.  Sput­nik not­ed that the Nicaraguan insti­tute could become a region­al indus­try “ref­er­ence point” for Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca.

In addi­tion to its rel­e­vance to the cur­rent coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the pos­si­ble man­u­fac­tur­ing of Inter­fer­on Alfa 2‑B could also be an attempt to revive the plant, which has been report­ed­ly strug­gling finan­cial­ly since its inau­gu­ra­tion in 2016.  Where­as, in 2019, reports emerged that the Insti­tute had received approval from Cuban reg­u­la­tors to pro­duce the flu vac­cines for use by the local Min­istry of Health to pro­tect Nicaraguans against the flu that year, the actu­al oper­a­tions of the insti­tute have been dif­fi­cult to ver­i­fy.  By some accounts, the insti­tute has been on the “verge of col­lapse.”

Over the years, the Insti­tute has also been sus­pect­ed of polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, includ­ing alle­ga­tions of spon­sor­ing a lav­ish birth­day par­ty in Jan­u­ary 2016 for Lau­re­ano Orte­ga Muril­lo — the son of the country’s strong­man leader, Daniel Orte­ga, who was sanc­tioned by the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment in April 2019.  Staff of the Insti­tute explained that the par­ty was thrown due to a per­son­al con­nec­tion between Muril­lo and the Direc­tor of Mech­nikov S.A. fol­low­ing their time spent togeth­er in Rus­sia.