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7-Business: Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba

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TITLE:  Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba
SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor, USA, by Chen May Yee
DATE:   Apr 17, 2003

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Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba

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 future. 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 
biotechnology exports.

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 biotechnology 

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 

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.