Latin American Report
Cuban Pharmaceuticals Look for Ticket to Europe
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, April 21 (IPS) - Cuba's highly developed pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries produce a variety of unique vaccines and medications which have not yet made their way to European markets due to obstacles raised by transnational corporations. At least that is what the Cuban industry leaders told a British group that recently visited the island. The visitors included academics as well as British pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry executives.
Cuba already markets some of its biotech products, though mostly in Asia and Latin America. Meanwhile, European pharmaceutical companies have been slow to approach Cuba, complain industry leaders. An anti-meningococcus (meningitis) type B and C vaccine - the only one in the world, achieved in 1989 -, is patented in 17 countries, but commercialised in only 10, among them Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay, industry officials reported.
''We are talking about a difficult market to which not everyone can gain access,'' a specialist who requested anonymity told IPS. He pointed out that some 25 transnational corporations monopolise nearly two-thirds of the international market.
For European companies, negotiating with Cuba in this area has its attractions. Cuba offers low research costs and an opportunity for European companies to expand their product portfolios, but obtaining patents continues to be complicated. In addition, the United States embargo, which the Helms-Burton law of 1996 expanded to apply to countries involved in trade with Cuba, threatens to punish any Cuban attempt to penetrate the international market.
A Cuban executive described the state-run bio-tech and pharmaceutical industries as ''a well-kept secret,'' made up of a vast network of research laboratories and production centres, highly qualified scientists and a vast array of products. The costly maintenance and development of this sector requires external financing, which is yet another obstacle, as the US embargo prevents Cuba from accessing the main international credit sources.
The anti-meningococcus vaccine is the only one in the world for combating meningitis, a disease with a potential for dangerous epidemic outbreaks. It is produced by the Carlos J. Finlay Institute of Serums and Vaccines, which hopes to patent the vaccine in Europe. Sources from the institute say they are planning to present the necessary documentation regarding the vaccine's safety and effectiveness to the Regulatory Agency of Great Britain. This injectable vaccine is already provided free of charge to newborns in Cuba.
The institute is also in charge of 10 of the 27 vaccine development projects that form part of Cuba's National Immunisation Programme. Already they have developed medications to fight cancer and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). These recent products are currently undergoing clinical trials at the Oncology Institute and the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, respectively. Potential vaccines to fight haemophilic influenza, typhoid fever, and pneumonia are in early research phases, according to Concepcion Campa, director of the Finlay Institute. Products for the prevention of cholera, infant and adult tetanus, as well as a triple-action medication to prevent diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), have reached advanced phases of research.
The Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), in turn, has patented a vaccine for hepatitis B and pharmaceuticals such as recombinant streptochinase, which can stop heart attacks up to six hours after it begins. CIGB successes include the epidermic growth factor, which is used to treat burns, radiation and skin ulcers and which promotes a scarring process that leaves the skin looking undamaged.
Other equally effective products produced on the island are PPG, or ateromixol, which reduces blood cholesterol; and interferon, a protein used in Cuba since 1981 to treat viral infections such as haemorrhagic dengue and some types of tumours. No less relevant is a vaccine to fight bovine cattle parasite infections, which cost some seven billion US dollars per year worldwide in lost meat, milk and hide produce. Under the commercial name Gavac, this antigen has proved to be 97 percent effective in field trials.
Cuba's young pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry is made up of more than 20 research and production centres. One of these, the state-run Biomedical Centre of Cuba (BIOCEN), last month became the first bio-pharmaceutical company on the island to receive ISO-9002 international quality certification, which facilitates access of its products to industrialised countries. This international certification authorises BIOCEN's production of vaccines, media culture, and other products. The average age of BIOCEN personnel is 29. (END/IPS/tr-sp/pg/mj/ld/ak/99)