By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA, April 22 (Reuters) - Cuba reported a record 1,207 new coronavirus cases on Thursday as the arrival of more contagious new virus variants like the one first discovered in South Africa fuels its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
While the government in the Caribbean's largest island did a good job initially at containing infections, the opening of borders in November without requiring negative COVID-19 tests and subsequent year-end socializing sparked a surge in cases that a lockdown and curfew have failed to curb.
Health authorities, who complain of a low risk perception among Cubans, have said many of the institutions dedicated to COVID-19 patients are full and they are seeking to open new centers to take in suspected cases and patients.
However, Cuba's vaunted medical system is not near the breaking point, they say.
The rise in infections comes as Cuba races to develop its own COVID-19 vaccines rather than import shots developed elsewhere. It has two experimental vaccines in late-stage trials that are already being administered to medical staff.
"Scientists have determined there is a growing presence of the variant discovered in South Africa, which is more contagious and lethal if we do not improve the way we treat it," President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Cuba's top epidemiologist Francisco Duran said 21,691 cases had been detected in April, which represents 1,032 daily infections on average in the country of 11 million inhabitants.
The April death toll, at 134, was already 33 higher than in the entire month of March, he said. That included the first pediatric death - a 4-year old girl.
That said, Cuba's COVID-19 death rate per capita is still a fraction of the world average.
Cuban authorities have said they have so far spent $170 million to fight a pandemic that has deprived the economy, crippled by its own inefficiencies and U.S. sanctions, of tourism.
The government has expressed hope that its vaccine candidates will not only allow them to curb the pandemic but also to boost the economy through exports. Cuba expects to start a mass vaccination campaign in Havana in May, before clinical trials conclude.
Selling its vaccines to other countries would also be a public relations coup for the Communist-run country that has come under significant pressure from the United States and right-wing governments in Latin America in recent years. (Reporting by Nelson Acosta Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
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