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biotechnology in Cuba
The article below examines the press for biotechnology in Cuba. The
article implies that Cubans believe that biotechnology and their main
export organic food can co-exist. Cuba may be suffering from
schizophrenia or do they truly believe that if they produce GM crops on
a small island they can also market "organic" crops?
from the April 17, 2003 edition -
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
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 decades later.
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
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
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 colleagues.
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.