Those who follow Cuba know that despite the harsh embargo that the US has imposed on that nation for over 50 years out of sheer spite because it is no longer a US client state, that country has managed to maintain a free universal health care system that is even able to send nurses and doctors to other developing countries in the world and to deal with emergencies, such as the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa when it sent hundreds of medical professionals.
Now that there is a thaw in US-Cuba relations, more positive news about Cuba is appearing in the US media such as this story about how Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology has developed a vaccine for lung cancer called Cimavax that US researchers will now be able to get access to perform more clinical trials here.
The Center for Molecular Immunology will give Roswell Park all of the documentation (how it’s produced, toxicity data, results from past trials) for an FDA drug application; Johnson says she hopes to get approval for testing Cimavax within six to eight months, and to start clinical trials in a year.
How did Cuba end up with a cutting edge immuno-oncology drug? Though the country is justly famous for cigars, rum, and baseball, it also has some of the best and most inventive biotech and medical research in the world. That’s especially notable for a country where the average worker earns $20 a month. Cuba spends a fraction of the money the US does on healthcare per individual; yet the average Cuban has a life expectancy on par with the average American. “They’ve had to do more with less,” says Johnson, “so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”
Despite decades of economic sanctions, Fidel and Raul Castro made biotechnology and medical research, particularly preventative medicine, a priority. After the 1981 dengue fever outbreak struck nearly 350,000 Cubans, the government established the Biological Front, an effort to focus research efforts by various agencies toward specific goals. Its first major accomplishment was the successful (and unexpected) production of interferon, a protein that plays a role in human immune response. Since then, Cuban immunologists made several other vaccination breakthroughs, including their own vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B, and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants.
Apparently there are a host of other medical advances that Cuba has made that can now be shared with the US. But Congress has to lift the embargo before full collaboration can occur.
The investments that Cuba has made in this kind of research contrasts sharply with how the US is sharply cutting such research funds because science here has a lower priority than giving tax cuts for the rich.