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Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba

By Chen May YeeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2003


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.

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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 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.