"Cuba's biotechnology is a well kept secret"
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Mon Aug 23 11:49:12 MDT 1999
Financial Times (London), July 31, 1999, Saturday LONDON EDITION 1
Vaccine gives shot in arm to Cuban biotechnology sector: Pascal Fletcher
on commercial implications for the Caribbean island of a meningitis
vaccine to be sold by SmithKline Beecham:
Cuba may be better known for its cigars, rum and salsa than for meningitis
jabs. That could change after this week's announcement that SmithKline
Beecham, the Anglo-American drugs group, will commercialise a vaccine
developed by Cuban scientists against the deadly disease.
The fact that SB obtained US government permission to test and market the
vaccine also represents a huge breakthrough for Cuba's emerging
Meningitis B is one of the world's principal killers of children and
adolescents, affecting some 500,000 and killing 50,000 around the globe
Cuba's state-owned Finlay Institute's meningitis B vaccine, developed in
the 1980s after an epidemic on the island, is one of the Cuban
biotechnology sector's most successful products. Despite some medical
debate over its effectiveness, it has already been sold in Latin Am-erica,
especially in Brazil.
Sales of the vaccine between 1989 and 1995 have been put at $ 150m (£94m).
Jean Stephenne, president of SB Biologicals, SB's vaccines business, paid
tribute to "the very high quality of Cuban scientists working in
Although recognised by many international experts as highly advanced by
third world standards, the Cuban industry in the past has found it
difficult to sell its products and break through the complex regulatory
barriers that surround the developed markets of Europe and North America.
In particular the industry - whose output includes several vaccines,
interferons, monoclonal antibodies and diagnostic systems - has lacked
fresh capital to finance costly foreign clinical trials, and expertise to
negotiate intellectual property and regulatory hurdles.
It has also faced scepticism from the outside world. More than one observer
has wondered how a developing country that was plunged into recession in
the mid-1990s by the collapse of the former Soviet bloc could be offering
sophisticated biotechnology products at a time when many essential consumer
goods and even basic foodstuffs were in short supply on the island.
"Cuba's biotechnology is a well kept secret. . . the European 'Big Pharma'
companies have been slow in moving towards Cuba," says one of the country's
top biotechnology experts, Dr Augustin Lage.
Nevertheless, the Cuban industry has been able to count on one powerful
backer, President Fidel Castro, who ensured that several hundred million
dollars of state funds were channelled into the sector in the 1980s and
1990s. An extensive network of biotechnology research, development and
production centres was created, staffed by several thousand scientists and
By contrast, foreign investment has been limited. A Canadian company, York
Medicalm, is helping the Cubans to develop a pipeline of products,
including two against cancer. A British-based fund has also invested.
But the SB deal may prove a turning point. It also confirms the opening of
a small but significant chink in Washington's 37-year-old economic embargo
against the communist-ruled Caribbean island.
Ahead of the agreement, SB needed approval by the US Treasury Department
because SB's vaccination testing laboratories in Belgium are owned by a US
subsidiary, putting them under the US sanctions jurisdiction.
"The SmithKline licence is consistent with changes in US policy relating to
US healthcare companies and Cuba," said John Kavulich, whose New York-based
US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council closely monitors developments in
Not that SB won approval from the US easily. Negotiations took more than a
year and the company had to agree to a barter arrangement, with royalties
paid half in cash and half in food and medicine for use in Cuba.
But Mr Kavulich said that, under modifications introduced to the US embargo
against Cuba by President Bill Clinton's administration, a growing number
of licences were now being granted to US health-care companies to have
dealings with the island which were previously prohibited.
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