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Economic recuperation with biotechnology
Daniel Vásquez
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Cuba makes important progress in scientific research on human health.

Cuba continues to bet on its biotechnology industry to boost exports, reduce expenditures on imported pharmaceuticals and manufacture supplies for its medical programs as a way of easing the island’s complicated economic problems.

A priority of the biotechnology sector is producing medicines and vaccines for its local health system and the health programs it maintains which offer services and doctors to Latin American and African nations.

"Last year, the biotechnology sector created products and patents that are sold in more than 40 countries and exports from this sector increased by more than 13 percent," said Economy Minister José Luis Rodríguez, referring to the economic report from year-end 2003. "The national pharmaceutical industry satisfied 67 percent of the demand for basic medicine on the island in 2003," he added.

In 2002, Cuba exported US$51.3 million in medical and pharmaceutical products, according to the most recent National Statistics Bulletin.

Analysts agree that the medical-pharmaceutical industry faces a number of difficulties, including a market dominated by massive US companies, overcoming the obstacles of the US economic blockade of Cuba and streamlining in its own structures.

One of the most recent effects of the blockade was the early July fine of the California-based Chiron Corporation. The company was fined $168,500 in early July for exporting vaccines to Cuba between 1999 and 2002. Company executives admitted that a European subsidiary illegally shipped two vaccines for infants to Cuba between 1999 and 2002.

"It was an inadvertent shipment on our part," said Chiron spokesperson John Gallagher in a press statement. He said Chiron is licensed to ship one type of pediatric vaccine through UNICEF to Cuba but inadvertently shipped two others not approved by the US government.

While Chiron was being fined, however, Cuban and US companies signed an agreement that allows US company to sell vaccines for cancer being produced on the island.

First cooperation agreement in 40 years

The US-based CancerVax will work with the Center for Molecular Immunology of Cuba (CIM) to manufacture and sell the vaccines. This is the first scientific cooperation agreement between Cuba and the United States in more than 40 years. "There is no tradition of technology transfer [in the biotechnology field] from countries in the south to countries in the north in general and, in this case, between Cuba and the United States," said Dr. Agustín Lage, CIM director.

The agreement involves three vaccines used for lung cancer and possibly other malignant tumors that are covered by six patents registered by the CIM. Donald Morton, medical director and chief surgeon at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Los Angeles, California said the CIM’s "vaccines against cancer designed to stimulate the immune system are a unique and unprecedented discovery."

Cuba has kept up its biotechnology sector despite the economic crisis that began in the early 1990s, when it lost its principal trading partners in the former Soviet bloc, which represented 85 percent of its foreign commerce.

Biotechnology resources

The government earmarks 1.7 percent of gross domestic product to scientific-technological research annually. Since 1992, it has invested more than $1 billion on biotechnology research.

A June report by the Miami Chamber of Commerce states that Cuba’s health and biotechnology sectors have strong human capital, but need investment.

The island has more than 200 scientific and technological research centers that employ more than 30,000 people. The Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology of Cuba (CIGB), which opened in 1986, is one of the most important scientific complexes in the country for research on human health, as well as plant development to find species that are disease-resistant.

The CIGB has registered more than 150 patents in Cuba. More than 65 other patents are registered in other countries and the results of its research and production are used in 500 applications throughout the world. It has signed technology-transfer agreements with 14 countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.

"For 2005, the CIGB hopes to register the first genetically modified plant in Cuba for use in the pharmaceutical industry to produce vaccines for human beings and animals," said Carlos Borroto, the center’s assistant director.

Developing new vaccines

Cuba is among a handful of countries that has made progress in developing a vaccine for HIV, which causes AIDS, and has developed methods to diagnosis the virus quickly, as well as a "cocktail" of drugs to treat people who are HIV-positive.

The country has developed a number of products combining biotechnology and genetic engineering to treat cancer, heart problems and skin diseases. Its most successful discoveries, however, are the vaccines for Type B meningitis and hepatitis B. There are currently 60 different products in the biotechnology industry that are in different stages of research and there are plans to set up installations for technology transfer outside the country.

Cuba also has a network of 15 bio-factories with installed capacity to produce 60 million in vitro plants that are virus-free. Cuban authorities state that the plants will not be released into the environment, but that the genetic modifications allow for harvesting molecules used in pharmaceuticals.

Foreign Commerce Minister Raúl de la Nuez has stated that biotechnology is among the top non-traditional sectors contributing to the country’s export earnings. Other promising sectors are fresh and processed citrus products, and sugarcane derivatives.

The new agreement signed between Cuban and US entities will benefit not only those sectors lobbying for improved relations between the two countries, but, more importantly, patients with cancer and their families in Mexico, the United States and Europe, where the vaccines will be sold initially.

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