Cuba Still Leading the Way in Health Technologies
By Patricia Grogg*
The vaccine for meningitis type B has opened a crack in the US embargo that for the last 40 years has prohibited all companies from that country from doing business with this Caribbean island.
HAVANA - At the beginning of the 21st century, Cuba stands out among the countries of the developing South for its great progress in health technologies, which this socialist-run island has pursued despite economic difficulties and material and human resource shortages.
Among the many scientific discoveries made here, one is particularly noteworthy, not only for its social benefits, but also for its political significance: the vaccine for the deadly meningitis type B.
The only vaccine of its kind, VA-MENGOC-BC has paved the way for the rare occurrence of technological transfer from Cuba, a developing country, to the industrialized North.
The British-US SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals in June 1999 won authorization from the US Treasury Department to sign a contract with the Havana-based Finlay Institute for introducing the vaccine on the European market.
Still underway is the complicated process that would allow sales in Europe, and later in the United States, of the antidote for meningitis B, an illness that ignores the social class and levels of economic development of its victims.
But the signing of the contract did open the first crack in the Washington-imposed embargo that since the early 1960s has banned all kinds of US-based companies from engaging in trade with Cuba.
''The United States doesn't have this vaccine and they need it for their health system,'' Pedro López Saura, head of Regulations and Clinical Trials at the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center (CIGB), told Tierramérica.
Among the other products handled by the Finlay Institute, which specializes in research and manufacture of vaccines, are the anti-tetanus vax-TET and the dual anti-diphtheria-tetanus.
The director of Applied Scientific-Technical Assistance at the institute, Franklin Sotolongo, lists some of the vaccine studies being conducted, such as inoculations against leptospirosis and cholera, a product for preventing meningitis types B and C and hepatitis B, and an improved triple vaccine for tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (whooping cough).
A good portion of Cuba's success in health research is due to the country's broad scientific and technological infrastructure. On this island of 11 million people, 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is earmarked for developing this sector.
But another important reason for its success is the close coordination among the centers that make up the scientific haven west of Havana, the oldest of which is the CIGB, which has remained on the cutting edge of genetic engineering and biotechnology.
''One characteristic of Cuban science, and of biotechnology in particular, is the cooperation between the research and production centers,'' pointed out López Saura.
The CIGB, which initially was dedicated to small-scale production of interferons - used in the therapeutic arsenal for viral diseases, hepatitis and some forms of cancer - now produces and markets a broad range of products.
From its laboratories arose recombinant streptokinase, patented as Heberkinasa, proven effective in treating thrombotic diseases, particularly acute myocardial infarction.
Furthermore, its scientists created the recombinant vaccine for hepatitis B, (Heberbiovac HB), as important as VA-MENGOC-BC as far as its beneficial social impacts, as both treatments form part of the vaccination program that protects Cuban children against 13 diseases.
The CIGB is currently working on a medication to treat HIV/AIDS, with clinical trials announced to begin early next year, and continues research on a vaccine to immunize humans against the disease.
''The therapeutical varieties, which stimulate the patient's immune system to defend itself against the virus, will come out first,'' said López Saura. He added that the center is also trying to come up with a vaccine for meningitis type C.
In the agricultural arena, a recombinant vaccine to ward off disease-carrying ticks (GAVAC) has meant some four million dollars in savings since 1995, when Cuba began applying it to the island's cattle herds, replacing the expensive chemicals used previously.
Meanwhile, the Molecular Immunology Center, built here in the early 1990s, specializes in developing immunology based on the production of monoclonal antibodies and other immune system molecules, which are fundamental for treating cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Among the medications the center has already patented is the monoclonal antibody ior T3, used in treatment and prophylaxis of liver transplant rejection, and ior EPOCIM, for treating anemia associated with chronic renal insufficiency.
Ior T3 was followed by other monoclonal antibodies that are effective in treating psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, with subsequent studies leading to versions that can be used in fighting certain tumors.
A project involving a therapeutic vaccine against cancer could follow the fertile ground laid by anti-meningococcus (meningitis) vaccines, if the mixed Cuban-Canadian enterprise CIMYM is able to interest pharmaceutical transnationals in providing backing for product development.
* Patricia Grogg is an IPS correspondent.