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.