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Wed Nov 10 12:39:46 MST 1999
The San Diego Union-Tribune
October 10, 1999, Sunday
S.D. eyes biotech alliances in Cuba; Island called eager for joint medical
SOURCE: STAFF WRITER
BYLINE: David E. Graham
Peering past an economic embargo that has separated Cuba from the United
States for almost four decades, some San Diego County business and academic
leaders are trying to forge a special relationship with the Communist nation.
Their focus: biomedical research.
It might seem a surprising alliance at first, one with a Caribbean island
more fabled for cigars, rum and revolutionary fervor.
But in exploratory conversations in Havana, the San Diegans discovered that
their Cuban counterparts are eager to pursue alliances involving medical
research and pharmaceutical development, which also are among the San Diego
Cuba, known for its attention to education and health care, now markets
medicines to Latin America and Europe, and Fidel Castro's government
regards biotechnology products as another way to bolster the country's
Just this summer, the credibility of Cuba's biomedical industry was
enhanced when British pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham said it would
market a Cuban vaccine for meningitis B, an inflammation of the brain.
Local companies could start building limited markets in Cuba now, experts
say, because some sales and testing of pharmaceuticals and supplies are
permitted by the embargo.
"Once the economic blockade finally ends, if San Diego businesses and
universities are not at the head of the line developing working
relationships, then we'll be at the back of the line," said Steven
Loughrin-Sacco, who directs San Diego State University's international
"Biotechnology is an obvious, natural potential alliance to start with,"
said Loughrin-Sacco, who helped organize the San Diego group that visited
Havana in April.
But the relationship that some people here envision with the nation of 11
million should not end there, says Gonzalo Lopez, manager of the city of
San Diego's office of international trade and technology.
If the American embargo on trade were rescinded, San Diego companies could
assist with the island's growing tourism industry and supply
telecommunications services, business services and environmental
technologies, he said. Lopez attended the April meetings in Havana with
Cuban university and government officials.
"We need to encourage representatives here so they can assess what the
Cubans have," Lopez said.
The overtures come as many American political and business leaders are
arguing for more normalized relations with Cuba, at least as a way to
influence developments there after Castro, now 73, leaves power.
While most forms of U.S. trade with Cuba are prohibited under the embargo
that took effect in 1962, two years after Castro seized power, some are not.
Limited sales of medicines and health-care supplies and some testing and
evaluating of American medical products are allowed, as long as a license
is obtained from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Loughrin-Sacco and Lopez are consulting with biotech and other business
leaders here and marshaling a return mission to Cuba planned for January, a
trip that requires a Treasury license.
Experts in the biotechnology industry have been recruited for that trip to
examine the Cuba operations in detail, said Stephen Dahms, an SDSU
professor who directs the entire California State University system's
Those experts hope to meet with researchers and tour facilities to learn
what Cuba might have to offer. Possibilities include shared research,
development of medicines and medical technologies, and marketing or even
testing of American-made products within Cuba, he said.
Joe Panetta, the executive director of BioCom San Diego, the industry group
representing this area's biotechnology companies, said the approach to Cuba
is novel here but worthwhile.
"We know Cuba over the years has invested a large part of its capital
resources in biotechnology and medical research," Panetta said. "It's
definitely worth considering."
SDSU already has a formal tie in Cuba.
Loughrin-Sacco announced in May that SDSU and the University of Havana had
agreed to exchange business students. That is scheduled to start in January.
"But that's just peanuts for the Cubans," Loughrin-Sacco said. "What they
want from San Diego is exchanges in biotechnology."
Since the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, which subsidized the Cuba
economy, the Caribbean nation has relied increasingly on an expanding
tourism industry to move beyond its mainstays of sugar and tobacco sales
and mining. Biotechnology could emerge as another key pillar.
Even though Cuba has entered partnerships with European companies in recent
years, splitting profits in tourism and other industries, Dahms noted that
any overtures in biomedical research would be complicated by Cuba's "closed
society," where decision-making is centralized and different from what
American companies might be accustomed to.
Easing the trade embargo would also probably be necessary before a robust
commerce could flourish, he added.
U.S. Treasury Department officials say that no San Diego area companies
have a license to trade with Cuba. Even so, interest exists among potential
San Diego partners.
Erkki Ruoslahti, director of the Burnham Institute, a biological research
lab in La Jolla, praised Cuba's medical research.
"They've been able to develop some real biotechnology there, in spite of
their problems," he said. "They actually had some successes, particularly
in designing vaccines."
In addition to the meningitis B vaccine, Cuba also markets treatments for
hepatitis B, and a drug to lower cholesterol, as well as diagnostics and
materials used in research and pharmaceutical production. It has also
developed a test for dengue fever, and sells an anti-rodent agent in Asia.
The Cubans also report developing an interferon and wound-healing compound,
and conducting research into heart-disease treatments and an AIDS vaccine.
Sheldon Hendler, president of San Diego's Vyrex Corp., is upbeat about the
"I think the opportunities can be enormous because they have some very fine
physician-scientists in Cuba," Hendler said. "I think it's one of the most
loaded, important relationships in biology ever."
Hendler likened the situation there today to a forest, rich with new
flowers and fruits, overlooked and forbidden. Go now, he said, "and you
have it all for yourself."
But Cuba may not be overlooked much longer. And that perception has added a
sense of urgency to Loughrin-Sacco's efforts.
Even so, Philip Brenner, a Latin American scholar at American University,
says small, incremental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba this year are
Cuba's Latin culture beneath the Communist veil has captured the
imagination of growing numbers in recent years, and cultural exchanges
among musicians, artists, scholars and athletic teams have proliferated.
U.S. congressmen and mayors have gone on fact-finding missions. The U.S.
Chamber of Commerce has called for more normalized trade with Cuba.
Cuban biotechnology also is gaining attention.
The SmithKline Beecham deal for the meningitis drug not only lent
credibility to the island's work but also required and received U.S.
Treasury Department approval because the Belgian lab where the drug will be
made is owned by an American company. It represented a rare American
approval for the marketing of a Cuban drug.
The first American trade exhibition in Havana in almost four decades, one
for health-care companies, has been approved for January. The organizer,
Peter Nathan of PWN Exhibicion LLC, in Westport, Conn., said a San Diego
company is among those scheduled to attend.
He would not name the company, or those from Irvine or Costa Mesa, until
sometime closer to the event to defuse any possible political criticism.
A Del Mar resident who is president of a trade association that promotes
interactions with Cuba says the time is ripe for overtures to Cuba.
"It's a logical market for San Diego," said William J. Hauf, president of
the U.S. Association for International Business & Trade. "San Diego is
familiar with dealing with international business and the carry-over into
biotechnology fits well.
"It would make a lot of sense to be visiting and establishing
relationships. " He said Cubans value personal relationship and familiarity
in their business equations.
San Diego's distance from Cuba might even benefit the region's prospects in
Cuba, said Richard Feinberg, a former National Security Council adviser to
President Clinton on Latin affairs and now a professor at UCSD.
Even though Miami is an important gateway for Latin business and is close
to Cuba, Cuban politics is a bitterly divisive issue there. "Here,"
Feinberg said, "politically, these openings would be a nonevent."
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