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Viva la Biotech Revolution!
January 18, 2005 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Viva la Biotech Revolution! Embargo or no, Castro's socialist paradise has quietly become a pharmaceutical powerhouse.
posted by dov3 (16 comments total)

 
I found this quite interesting. I do not know how many Third World Countries can claim being a "pharmaceutical powerhouse."
posted by dov3 at 11:21 AM on January 18, 2005


Very interesting. I never knew about this. Wouldn't it be funny if Cuba became an economic powerhouse, a communist economic powerhouse, through the pharma industry? (When I say powerhouse I mean in relation to their size and population.)
posted by caddis at 11:28 AM on January 18, 2005


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.

Can some student of Ayn Rand denounce this as misguided, please? I need a laugh today.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:40 AM on January 18, 2005


Long on hype, short on facts. It'd be interesting if there was more data to back it up. I'd love to believe it as an example of "see, the US isn't always right", but it's just not supported.

I'd believe a meningitis vaccine, but I have trouble believing that Cuba has invented any meaningful cancer therapies given that (a) shorter life expectency in general reduces the problem of cancer, and (b) cancer therapy tends to be so resource-intensive that I can't see the state-run healthcare system pouring the money required into it.

At the Museum of the Revolution in Havana (yes, I was there) they have a wing on "modern technology" under the revolution. The equipment on display as an example of their late 90's pharmaceutical development would have been antiquated in the 70's in the US. It doesn't guarantee that they can't be on the cutting-edge, but it sure puts a big question mark in my mind.

Further, the brain drain from Cuba is legendary. State salaries there are under $100 per month for professionals. It goes a lot further given that housing and basics are essentially free, but there's still a reason why people try to turn their trucks into boats.

I'd say that the lesson about the US encouraging more research into vaccines is something to take to heart. The economics of the problem is a huge issue. Not the least of the problem is that even though a vaccine has a HUGE value to consumers (imagine never having the flu again for your whole life), there is immense public pressure on prices. Further, there is huge liability associated with vaccine manufacture and administration - parents tend to be lawsuit-happy on behalf of their children and juries (sometimes correctly) give huge compensation to injured children.

Just thoughts...
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 11:50 AM on January 18, 2005


(a) shorter life expectency in general reduces the problem of cancer

You're forgetting that they smoke more cigars in a day than most people do in a lifetime. I'd guess cancer is quite prevalent in Cuba.
posted by rocket88 at 11:58 AM on January 18, 2005


"Latin America -- Cuba has the highest healthy life expectancy in the region, at 68.4 years, near U.S. levels. It is followed by Uruguay at 67.0 years; Argentina at 66.7 years and Costa Rica at 66.7 years. Brazil is split, with a high healthy life expectancy in its southern half, and a lower one in the north. The total average is a relatively low 59.1 years, at 55.2 for men and 62.9 for female babies".
From http://www.africaaction.org/docs00/life0006.htm

Accoding to this, the difference between life expectancy in Cuba and US is not extrimely significant.
posted by dov3 at 12:06 PM on January 18, 2005


I have trouble believing that Cuba has invented any meaningful cancer therapies

It helps if you read the link. (And avoid the Kool-Aid)

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.

Everywhere but the wing-nut crowd in the US believe. But the Cuban Mafia in Miami has influence in politics, don't they?

CancerVax staffers saw the research at an international conference

US and European scientists have a soft spot for their Cuban counterparts

The American drug company SmithKline Beecham (now part of a British transnational) got permission to license Campa's meningitis B vaccine in 1999.

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.

posted by nofundy at 12:17 PM on January 18, 2005


rocket88 - Actually the people I met (mostly city) smoked horrid "Popular" brand cigs since the cigars are made primarily for export. Populars made Gitanes seem mild.

dov3 - I stand corrected about life exectancy. Thanks!

nofundy - Read it. One drug going into testing. The US pharma industry turns out a hundred molecules a month. I'd want to know how it was developed (artificial synthethis? folk medicine screen?) and a few more examples.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2005


Well, it was enough to get the Bush administration hot and bothered about the Cuban bioweapons industry...

It'll be interesting to see how this develops. I've been watching Cuba for close to a decade now -- I'm personally interested in the country for reasons I never really understood -- and they have been putting a lot of energy into biotech since the late 80's. Even Castro saw the writing on the wall -- tourism does not a stable economy make. In addition, it gave them a way to make medicines without trading the family jewels to American companies.

It's not about America-Bad-Cuba-Good... Rather, an interesting picture of how a third world country might dig its way out.

Cuba's ideally positioned, of all the down and out central american islands. Very high literacy rate and education, long life expectancy and good health... I think it's really a question of whether the brain drain will outpace the development.
posted by verb at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2005


This is just nonsense. I have been to Cuba twice in the last couple of years. The most common request to any foreigner is for medicine. On our first trip my tour guide was worried to death because his daughter had a high fever and there were no medicines whatsoever to treat her. And he was a relatively wealthy and connected Cuban. He almost began to cry when someone on our tour came up with a course of antibiotics. Even aspirin, he said, is extremely difficult to obtain. Later that week a professor of economics from the University of Havana sold us a book about Cuban medicine, which included the claim that Cuban doctors have performed several successful brain transplants. We questioned him on this specifically, he was adamant that it was true.
posted by LarryC at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2005


Can some student of Ayn Rand denounce this as misguided, please? I need a laugh today.

can you be satisfied with giving me a laugh?
posted by blendor at 2:57 PM on January 18, 2005


The equipment on display as an example of their late 90's pharmaceutical development would have been antiquated in the 70's in the US. It doesn't guarantee that they can't be on the cutting-edge, but it sure puts a big question mark in my mind.

The vaccines that wiped out smallpox and blunted the great scurge of polio were developed on just such antiquated equipement. There is no doubt in my mind that we could be farther along on curing many deseases if we weren't spending so much capital treating social aliments. Why the heck haven't we found a vaccine for malaria? Why can't the US even produce enough vaccines that we do have for their own use?
posted by Mitheral at 6:28 PM on January 18, 2005


There is no money in vaccines.
posted by caddis at 7:09 PM on January 18, 2005


"Castro did something remarkable..."
posted by spock at 8:33 PM on January 18, 2005


Some overall concurrence came from the Economist: Cuba's biotech boom. The Cuban medical system has long been one of those socialist dreams touted by US progressives, but it is something of a mirage -- certainly since the loss of Soviet support Cuba has been less able to support the sector, and this has partly spurred the biotech investment. The reality is that Cuba still trains more doctors than anybody, but mainly for export (or for medical tourists). They send home cash from their postings in LatAm and Africa (or in many cases, pay for Cuba's oil by their presence) -- and medicines are scarce. Ordinary people do not, as a rule, benefit. If you can afford it, though, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the space-age plastic surgery clinic for foreigners shown in the most recent James Bond film were true to life (though probably not housed in an historic fort!).
posted by dhartung at 9:21 PM on January 18, 2005


Also, an earlier article in the Christian Science Monitor:

"More than three years ago, Smith-Kline Beecham PLC - a charter member of the capitalist world's pharmaceutical sector - signed an agreement with Cuba's Finlay Institute to market the institute's vaccine against meningitis B - the world's first.

Now called GlaxoSmithKline PLC, the second-biggest pharmaceutical com-pany in the world is running trials for the Cuban vaccine in Europe and Latin America. If those trials are successful, the company says it plans clinical trials in the US."
posted by verb at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2005


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