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AHF Donates SARS COV-2 viral sequencing machine to the Caribbean

“The current need and demand for genomic surveillance in the region has increased significantly, so we are extremely grateful”

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The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus (Photo Credit: UWI)

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global AIDS organization, signed an agreement with the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago to provide a gene sequencing analyzer and reagents to expand the capacity of the university to test for new and emerging variants of the coronavirus.

This will improve the region’s sequencing capacity and contribute to reducing testing turnaround times. Jamaica and many of the countries in the Region are now experiencing severe upsurges of Covid-19 caused by the Delta variant, with many hospitals exceeding capacity and others running out of oxygen. More recently five cases of the Mu variant were also identified in St. Vincent.

Dr. Kevin Harvey, the Caribbean Regional Director at AHF, in welcoming the agreement, noted that the machine is already on order and should be in place within the next two to three weeks. “The Mu variant has since been isolated in samples from Jamaica as well, making the timeliness of AHF’s donation of the gene sequencing analyzer and reagents all the more critical,” noted Dr. Harvey.  

“Our COVID-19 IMPACT project, a UWI-led collaboration with CARPHA (the Caribbean Public Health Agency) and the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Health, established local capacity for virus whole genome sequencing in December 2020, and our laboratory at UWI has been carrying out genomic surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 variants for Trinidad and Tobago and 16 other CARPHA member states,” said Dr. Christine Carrington, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Virology at the UWI.

“The current need and demand for genomic surveillance in the region has increased significantly, so we are extremely grateful for the AHF’s support. The device they are providing is faster and can also do five times as many samples as the device we started off with, so it will help to increase our throughput.”

Dr. Jorge Saavedra the executive Director of the AHF Global Public Health Institute at the University of Miami, highlighted the project as part of a larger initiative by AHF to improve the early detection of new variants to enable proper planning, and in some cases, expansion of existing genomic sequencing initiatives and implementation of mitigation measures in several of the countries served by AHF that can inform public policy. “AHF is also now in final negotiations to provide support to establishing genomic sequencing capacity in Jamaica to reduce the need for all samples to be sent to Trinidad and Tobago.”

AHF has also previously provided similar support to Brazil, Uganda, Mexico, India, Argentina, and before the end of the year, will undertake other similar initiatives in Nigeria, Peru, Ukraine and Pakistan.

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Caribbean

Trans Cuban woman’s 14-year prison sentence upheld

Brenda Díaz participated in an anti-government protest on July 11, 2021

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Brenda Díaz (Photo courtesy of Ana María García Calderín/Tremenda Nota)

HAVANA — Cuba’s highest court has upheld the 14-year prison sentence that a Transgender woman with HIV received after she participated in an anti-government protest in July 2021.

Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, notes Brenda Díaz was arrested in Güira de Melena in Artemisa province on July 11, 2021.

The Güira de Melena protest was one of dozens against the Cuban government that took place across the country on that day.

A Havana court earlier this year sentenced García to 14 years in prison. She appealed her sentence, but Agencia EFE reported the People’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the sentence.

The court, according to Agencia EFE, determined García’s sentence was “legal, just” and rational.” The U.S. Embassy in Cuba on Thursday condemned the decision and its ruling that upheld the 15-year prison sentence that journalist Jorge Bello Domínquez received after he participated in the July 11 protests.

“We condemn the confirmation of the discriminatory and unjust 14- and 15-year prison sentences for Brenda Díaz and journalist Jorge Bello Domínguez for their participation in the July 11 (protests) that were announced yesterday,” tweeted the embassy.

A State Department spokesperson last month told the Washington Blade the U.S. is “very concerned about the well-being of Brenda Díaz, especially given reports that she is being held in a men’s prison and is not receiving appropriate medical treatment.” 

The embassy on Thursday reiterated these concerns.

“We express our deep concern over Brenda’s health and the treatment that she is receiving in prison,” tweeted the embassy. “We call upon the Cuban government to unconditionally release Brenda, Jorge and everyone who has been unjustly detained.”

The tweet ended with the hashtag “Prisoners, why?” 

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Caribbean

New Cuba family code referendum to take place Sept. 25

Same-sex couples poised to receive marriage, adoption rights

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HAVANA — The Cuban government has announced a referendum on the final draft of a new family code that would extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples will take place on Sept. 25.

“It will benefit everyone; which shows its inclusive, protective and equal character,” said Justice Minister Oscar Silvera Martínez, as quoted in Granma, the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper, on Friday.   

The National Assembly late last year approved the draft family code. 

A “popular consultation” ended on April 30. Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, reported the last of the family code’s 25 drafts was presented to President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other officials on June 6.

Díaz-Canel and Mariela Castro, the daughter of former President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, are among those who publicly support marriage equality. Cuban voters in 2019 overwhelmingly approved the draft of their country’s new constitution, but the government’s decision to remove a marriage equality amendment before the referendum on it sparked outrage among independent LGBTQ+ and intersex activists.

Efforts to implement the new family code are taking place against the backdrop of the continued persecution of LGBTQ+ and intersex Cubans and others who publicly criticize the country’s government.

Tremenda Nota Editor Maykel González Vivero is among the hundreds of people who were arrested during anti-government protests that took place across Cuba on July 11, 2021.

Yoan de la Cruz, a gay man who used Facebook Live to livestream the first protest that took place in San Antonio de los Baños in Artemisa province. De La Cruz subsequently received a 6-year prison sentence, but he was released on house arrest in May.

Brenda Díaz, a Transgender woman with HIV who participated in a July 11 protest in Güira de Melena in Artemisa province, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison. The State Department told the Blade earlier this month it is “very concerned” about Díaz’s health and well-being and urged the Cuban government to release her.

“We strongly encourage the government of Cuba to release Ms. Diaz or at minimum transfer her to a facility consistent with her gender identity, and to provide her with appropriate medical treatment,” a State Department spokesperson told the Blade.

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State Department urges Cuba to release Trans woman from prison

Brenda Díaz received 14-year sentence for taking part in anti-government protest

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Brenda Díaz (Photo courtesy of Ana María García/Tremenda Nota)

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Thursday said it is “very concerned” about the well-being of a Transgender woman in Cuba who is serving a 14-year prison sentence after she participated in an anti-government protest last July.

Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, notes Brenda Díaz was arrested in Güira de Melena in Artemisa province on July 11, 2021.

The Güira de Melena protest was one of dozens against the Cuban government that took place across the country on that day.

Tremenda Nota reports authorities at Panamá, a prison in Mayabeque province where Díaz has been held, shaved her head and removed her finger nails before they placed her with male prisoners and forced her to wear men’s clothes. Tremenda Nota also notes prison officials refer to García by her dead name.

Reports indicate a Havana court earlier this year sentenced García to 14 years in prison.

García has appealed the sentence and her mother, Ana María García, on June 17 saw her during a court hearing in the Havana suburb of Marianao. 

García told Tremenda Nota that Díaz, who lives with HIV, has gone to the prison infirmary four times and has been hospitalized twice since she has been incarcerated. Díaz, according to her mother, has access to antiretroviral drugs, but other medications are not always available. García also told Tremenda Nota the food that Díaz receives in prison is “very bad quality.”

“We are very concerned about the well-being of Brenda Díaz, especially given reports that she is being held in a men’s prison and is not receiving appropriate medical treatment,” the State Department spokesperson told the Blade in a statement.

Díaz is among the hundreds of people who were arrested during the July 11 protests.

Yoan de la Cruz, who is gay, used Facebook Live to livestream the first July 11 protest that took place in San Antonio de los Baños in Artemisa province. The same Havana court that sentenced Díaz condemned De La Cruz to six years in prison, but he was released in May and placed under house arrest for five years.

“Cuban state prosecutors have manufactured false or unjust charges, to include ‘sabotage’ for the actions of demonstrators during July 11 to silence dissidents, quash future peaceful protests and intimidate regime critics,” the State Department spokesperson told the Blade. “These protestors have received incredibly harsh prison sentences handed down in politically motivated trials.”

“We strongly encourage the government of Cuba to release Ms. Diaz or at minimum transfer her to a facility consistent with her gender identity, and to provide her with appropriate medical treatment,” added the spokesperson.

The Washington-based International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights is among the groups that have also sought to publicize Díaz’s case.

“A few days before the first anniversary of the peaceful protests known as 11J (July 11), get to know the story of Brenda Díaz, a Trans Cuban woman who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for expressing her gender identity amid the protests. Meet her!,” tweeted the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights.

Plataforma 11M, an independent LGBTQ+ and intersex rights group in Cuba, on Thursday urged Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ+ and intersex issues, to “investigate” Díaz’s incarceration and a September referendum on the final draft of Cuba’s new family code that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples

Cuba is among the members of the U.N. Human Rights Council that voted on Thursday to renew the independent expert’s mandate.

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