CUBA: Biotech Revolution

Publisher Name: 
Wired News

  

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, naïveté 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.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture