Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba
By Chen May Yee | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
HAVANA - This crumbling, isolated throwback to a cold-war past is probably
one of the last places you'd expect to find the sciences of the
In Old Havana, wood-paneled pharmacies with crystal chandeliers and empty
shelves attract more gawking tourists these days than
customers. Food is so scarce that the government urges citizens to grow fruit and vegetables in small urban plots to supplement their diet.
Yet this struggling island nation is chipping away at a longtime US embargo with an unlikely tool: biotechnology.
More than three years ago, Smith-Kline Beecham PLC - a charter member of
the capitalist world's pharmaceutical sector - signed an
agreement with Cuba's Finlay Institute to market the institute's vaccine against meningitis B - the world's first.
Now called GlaxoSmithKline PLC, the second-biggest pharmaceutical com-pany
in the world is running trials for the Cuban vaccine in
Europe and Latin America. If those trials are successful, the company says it plans clinical trials in the US.
For Cuba, the deal was a tiny crack in the door that might open up lucrative
new markets for its biotechnology products. Besides earning
the impoverished communist country much-needed dollars, it could help build new economic bridges with a world that has become a much
lonelier place since the collapse of Cuba's old ally, the Soviet Union.
"We have neither money nor time," says Concepcion Campa, the scientist
who developed the vaccine and the president of Finlay, Cuba's
main research and manufacturing center for human vaccines. With GlaxoSmithKline, which holds a 7 percent share of the world
pharmaceutical market, Cuba gains access to marketing heft and a vast commercial network.
The market for such a vaccine is "hundreds of millions of dollars," according
to Moncef Slaoui, a senior vice president at GSK Biologicals,
the Belgian-based vaccine division of GlaxoSmithKline. Cuba currently earns just $100 million a year from its total pharmaceutical and
The official line on science's value
When meeting foreign visitors, Cuban officials like to quote something
Fidel Castro said in 1960 just after he marched into power: "The
future of our homeland must be that of men of science."
Ironically, the 42-year-old US trade embargo might actually have spurred
the island's pursuit to science. Imposed in 1960 by President
Kennedy after Mr. Castro infuriated the US by nationalizing $1 billion worth of US-owned property in Cuba, the embargo remains in place
Unable to import some of the medicines it wanted, Cuba began making its
own generic drugs through reverse engineering - piracy by
another name. From there sprang a state pharmaceutical industry and later, a biotechnology offshoot.
Cuban officials say the country now produces 80 percent of the types of
drugs and medicines used by its 11 million people, though the
empty shelves in pharmacies suggest the actual shortfall in quantity may be greater.
The healthcare strategy is straightforward: The government develops the
drugs and vaccines according to the demands of Cubans. It then
tests them and dispenses them across the population through a network of neighborhood family doctors, polyclinics, and hospitals.
"Cuban science does not produce as much in peer-reviewed English-language
scientific journals as its size [would merit], but [there is]
more input into social practice," the application of science in a real-world setting, says Sergio Jorge Pastrana, who handles international
relations for the 142-year-old Cuban Academy of Sciences.
In the early 1990s, when the economy's implosion got so bad that the average
Cuban adult lost 20 pounds, the government continued to
set aside 1.5 percent of gross national product each year for scientific research. A total of $1 billion between 1992 and 1996 went toward
creating a no-frills, centralized version of Silicon Valley, the Western Havana Scientific Pole. In the mid-1990s, crippled by the economic
crisis, Cuba sent its scientists to labs in Sweden, Spain, and Germany so they could continue working.
Today, Cuba's economy is recovering, thanks to emergency liberalization
measures that promote tourism and allow Cubans to start limited
private businesses and hold and use the US dollar.
At the Western Havana Scientific Pole, scientists at 52 institutes are
researching vaccines and therapies for AIDS and Alzheimer's, among
others. There are some cooperation agreements - for product sales, joint ventures, contract manufacture and research - with entities in
Latin America, China, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Australia. Cuba has filed applications for 500 patents around the world.
Embargo blocks biggest market
But the biggest market has so far eluded it: Although the US has granted
Cuba 24 patents, the embargo has so far prevented it from selling
any of the products in America.
There is also some biotechnology research in agriculture, but it has not
been commercialized, Cuban officials say, partly for fear that
genetically modified food crops might hurt that famed Cuban export - cigars.
Stories of frustration abound. Scientists have limited access to Western
journals and can't always afford the latest equipment. They are
often denied US visas for scientific exchange.
One Finlay Institute scientist who works with a mass spectrometer, a machine
for analyzing biochemicals, says he can't get a US visa to
attend conferences to discuss the cutting-edge technology. Another researcher shares his subscription to the journal Nature with 20
They are also abysmally paid, especially when compared with workers in
the growing tourist industry, where cash registers ring with
dollars, not the Cuban peso. As a desperate Cuba opened its arms to tourists in recent years, a topsy-turvy parallel economy emerged
where a chambermaid earns more in tips than a biotech scientist's monthly salary of around $20.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to Cuba's biotechnology plan is the political climate in the US, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.
On a recent morning, Luis Herrera, wearing a white lab coat, greeted US
journalists visiting his Center for Genetic Engineering and
Biotechnology. "Did you already visit the place where the weapons are made here?" he asks cheekily, with a nod to the deep suspicion
with which the US views Cuba's biotechnology aspirations. "We don't have money to do that," he says.