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CUBA: Biotech Revolution

by Douglas StarrWired News
December 12th, 2004


The country has taken a few steps toward bridging the gap. The American drug company SmithKline Beecham (now part of a British transnational) got permission to license Campa's meningitis B vaccine in 1999. The terms of the deal are restrictive. SmithKline pays Cuba in products during clinical trials (now in Phase II in Belgium) and in cash only if the drug proves to be viable.

In July, CancerVax, a California-based biotech company, got federal approval to test a Cuban vaccine that stimulates the immune system against lung cancer cells. CancerVax is the first US business to receive such approval. CancerVax staffers saw the research at an international conference, and then spent two years lobbying Capitol Hill and Cuban-American interest groups.

Still, na´vetÚ remains the real obstacle to a Cuban biotech century. Fidel's pharmacists lack slick brochures and golden-tongued sales staff. Foreigners tend to find Cuba overly bureaucratic, especially when closing a deal.

"They just don't get capitalism," a diplomat tells me over coffee in Boston. "The elite may watch American TV and read The Wall Street Journal on the Web, so they have a conversational familiarity. But on a fundamental level they don't get it and don't want to get it. They still think there's something immoral about profit."

Borroto, of CIGB, remembers talking to colleagues about using patents to protect their expanding market. That was the moment Castro decided to pop into the lab. "What's all this about patents? You're sounding crazy!" he said. "We don't like patents, remember?"

Borroto stood his ground. "Even if you're giving medicine to the third world," he said, "you still need to protect yourself."

Borroto knew he had to get better at the game. He sent his staff to Canada to get MBAs, to learn the language of capitalism. Yet concepts like venture capital still escape him. "I can't understand how 80 percent of the biotech companies in the world make money without selling any products," he says. "How do they do this? Hopeness," he guesses, using a neologism to stress the absurdity. "They sell hopeness."

Asked for an annual report - a basic necessity of international business - Agustin Lage, director of the Center for Molecular Immunology, merely says, "You know, we've actually been meaning to produce one." Then he smiles and shrugs.

It's like Castro said: They don't really like patents. They like medicine. Cuba's drug pipeline is most interesting for what it lacks: grand-slam moneymakers, cures for baldness or impotence or wrinkles. It's all cancer therapies, AIDS medications, and vaccines against tropical diseases.

That's probably why US and European scientists have a soft spot for their Cuban counterparts. Everywhere north of the Florida Keys, once-magical biotech has become just another expression of venture-driven capitalism. Leave it to the Cubans to make it revolutionary again.

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