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Masks and swabs made in Cuba

Cuba mascarillasYoung faces can be seen behind the protective shields and face masks of workers also wearing gloves, white or blue gowns and cloth booties. The hygiene protocol is strict, because they are watching over the humming automatic equipment that produces 40 face masks a minute. Between 14,000 and 16,000 of these items are produced here every day.

A few meters away, other hands, other faces, are following the process in the swab plant, with a production capacity that has allowed the delivery to the Ministry of Public Health of some 1,750,000 swabs since its start-up last March.

We are visiting the Center for Neurosciences of Cuba (Cneuro) medical supplies plant, in a building which until just months ago housed a biotherium for scientific research which required the use of experimental animals, but the facility was feeling the weight of the years and many of its areas were in disuse.

“The conditions of the site had fallen into a state of disrepair. There is a project in the making to recover the purpose of the space and create a modern, high-performance biotherium. Right now, the monkeys and other species are housed at the National Center for the Production of Laboratory Animals (Cenpalab),” explained Antonio Fernández Mastrapa, Director of Production at Cneuro. In the midst of this process, he explained, negotiations were being conducted with international organizations to acquire equipment, which would allow us to manufacture protective wear to confront COVID-19. “It so happened then that these installation of these machines required specific conditions and the premises we had at the center were not suitable for this purpose. So we decided to use the biotherium facility.”

The project, he said, began in October of 2020 and by November the first constructive works were already underway. “Several entities were involved in the final result, from construction and service companies, to Havana’s water system, the Electric Union, Sanitary Services, non-agricultural cooperatives…, in addition to the support provided by the provincial government from the beginning,” he added.

The “made in Cuba” masks are very similar to those marketed internationally and are composed of three layers: one blue, which is the outer layer, a white intermediate layer, and a filter that performs the main role in protecting against the virus.

The system for their manufacture includes three pieces of equipment, Fernández told Granma. The first shapes the mask, and is capable of producing between 100 and 150 units per minute at full capacity. The second machine on the assembly line, which attaches elastic straps to the mask to hold it in place, can only handle up to 40 per minute, thus lowering productive capacity, he said.

“Taking this inconvenience into account, we were obliged to readjust production, to allow for uniformity and ensure that bottlenecks are not created.” He nonetheless emphasized that the goal is to meet the demand for this product, reporting that work is underway to obtain the necessary financing to purchase another machine to attach the straps to the mask, in order to double production, he explained.

“The third machine is the packager, and we have programmed it with a format of five units per package. These machines were started up just a few weeks ago, and we are currently in the load testing phase, but later this month, they will move into full operation,” he stated.

Their acquisition, he commented, was made possible through a project to support measures to prevent and combat covid-19 in Cuba, co-financed by the European Union, which, in addition to the masks, also contributed to increasing our mold manufacturing workshop’s capacity, and in the coming months will allow for the assembly of a plastic injection machine for the manufacture of protective goggles.

Regarding the assurance of raw materials, Fernández explained that materials were initially acquired along with the machinery, which will guarantee the production of an adequate number of masks to evaluate the performance of both the equipment and the materials.

“Of course, we are not going to wait for the raw material to run out before making the necessary arrangements. We are already working to acquire the materials: the cloth, the filter, the wire that acts as a nose bridge, the elastic that holds the mask, etc.”

Cuban swabs: Another milestone

Before COVID-19, Cneuro’s workshop did not manufacture swabs, but rather manufacture of auditory equipment and hearing aids, reported Yamil Rosales Hernández, head of the company’s Medical Supplies Plant.

Nonetheless, given the increase in COVID-19 cases and the need to guarantee PCR testing, we have taken on other responsibilities, he said.

He specified that in September of 2020 they initially produced some 10,000 swabs a day, a task completed “almost entirely manually, using some motors and the continuous efforts of our personnel day and night.”

The United Nations Development Program made possible the acquisition of machinery to manufacture swabs, along two lines: for PCR testing and general use, he added.

The PCR swab is fabricated with polyester thread and a polyethylene stick, and both materials are supplied by national industry, with quality that has been certified, he noted. “It also has medical-grade paper, which ensures the protection and transportation of the sterilized material. Each package contains two swabs.”

Unlike the masks, he said, raw material for the swabs is domestically produced, which is an advantage when it comes to sustaining production.

According to Rosales, the plant is capable of delivering up to 120,000 packages of swabs a day, but since an automatic packaging machine has not been obtained, the process must be done manually, slowing daily production to around 20,000 in this format.

With the acquisition of this equipment, he said, it will be possible to eliminate the importation of swabs for PCR testing, with the consequent savings for the country’s economy.

Both in the swab plant and the mask facility, most of the staff is young. Almost all are Cneuro workers and have experience in the manufacture of protective wear and equipment, since many were trained and participated in the “almost entirely manual” production of swabs.

Administrators at the center report that both masks and swabs are subjected to a rigorous sterilization and quality-control process, and have not disappointed the final recipients.

(Taken from Granma)

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