Biden Seeks Biotech Collaboration, Ignores Cuba’s Powerhouse Industry

Washington D.C.President Biden’s recent $2 billion biotech spending plan includes a directive to bolster cooperation with international partners.

But U.S. sanctions are inhibiting collaboration with a potential counterpart just 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Cuba is a global biotech leader that has produced five COVID vaccines among other life-saving drugs that U.S. citizens are currently barred by law from accessing.

So far, the Biden administration has done nothing to remove barriers to U.S.-Cuba scientific cooperation imposed under Trump.

Despite decades of sustained U.S. hostility toward Cuba, scientists from the two countries have been cooperating since the Smithsonian Institution and the Cuban Academy of Sciences signed an agreement in 1980 to restore scholarly exchanges. Scientific collaboration reached its peak under the Obama administration, when the number of scientific papers jointly produced by U.S. and Cuban scientists surpassed that of any previous administration.

As part of Obama’s detente with Cuba, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed a memorandum of understanding with Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health in 2016. HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell described the agreement as a “historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other’s knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at large.”

Obama’s normalization of diplomatic relations along with his loosening of restrictions led to frequent travel by Cuban scientists to the United States (and vice versa) for participation in international conferences, professional exchanges and fellowship programs.

His administration also facilitated testing of Cuban pharmaceuticals that have the potential to save or drastically improve peoples’ lives in the United States.

In 2014, the Treasury Department granted a license for U.S. clinical trials of Cuba’s innovative diabetic foot ulcer drug, Herbeprot-P, which has reduced amputations on the island by over 70%, according to Cuban authorities. Nearly 80,000 people in the U.S. undergo these same amputations each year.

Two years later, federal regulators removed extra licensing requirements for Cuban biotech products going through the Food and Drug Administration approval process.

Perhaps the most notable symbol of the Obama-era boom in scientific exchange was the creation of the first joint U.S.-Cuban biotech venture established between the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) to make innovative cancer therapies available to U.S. patients.

Initiated under the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, the Roswell Park-CIM collaboration outlasted Trump’s rollback of Obama’s policies. Under the partnership, the Cuban-produced CIMAvax-EGF drug is currently undergoing U.S. clinical trials to determine its effectiveness in not only treating, but also preventing lung cancer.

But other areas of scientific collaboration were squashed by Trump’s rollback.

In late 2017, the State Department shuttered the consulate at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, making it nearly impossible for Cuban scientists to travel to the United States. Trump also activated Title III from the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, allowing lawsuits in U.S. courts against U.S. and foreign firms doing business with Cuban properties nationalized after 1959, which experts say may have scared off potential U.S. biotech firms from entering into new joint ventures with Cuba.

Biden’s appointments of public health experts with Cuba experience to key positions initially revived hopes for renewed ties between the countries’ scientific communities.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra criticized Cuban-American hardline stances and called for increased U.S.-Cuba engagement two decades before Obama’s groundbreaking opening.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, a prominent epidemiologist named to Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, promoted U.S.-Cuba biotech collaboration at a webinar he hosted in December 2020 in his role as director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. His guest of honor was “Cuba’s Dr. Fauci,” Dr. Francisco Durán García, head of epidemiology at Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health.

And Dr. Marcella Núñez-Smith, chair of Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, has lauded Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) and praised the low-income U.S. medical students studying there on free scholarships after a 2011 visit to Havana.

Despite these appointments, the Biden administration ignored calls to lift sanctions on Cuba during the pandemic while the country suffered devastating shortages in basic medicines due in part to the U.S.-imposed barriers on Cuba’s access to financing and importing raw materials. 

Last year, Biden made an “offer” to send Cuba vaccines (which came with onerous conditions that rendered it all but empty) even as U.S. sanctions delayed the country’s ability to produce and distribute its own Abdala and Soberana COVID vaccines.

Although U.S. sanctions have impeded access to state-of-the-art equipment and curtailed scientific collaboration, Cuba has still managed to become one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. The Washington Post has dubbed the island a “vaccine powerhouse” and a “pioneer in COVID-19 vaccines for kids.

Cuban scientists have openly expressed willingness to initiate joint research projects and expert exchanges with top U.S. institutions, including in the production of life-saving vaccines and medical equipment.

In the U.S., dozens of cities, states and labor councils have passed resolutions urging the U.S. government to facilitate collaboration and exchange with Cuba on COVID, public health and biotechnology, as well as to lift the restrictions impeding them.

Those calls have been echoed in Congress, where 26 House Democrats recently urged Biden to “explore possibilities for engaging Cuba on issues of global health,” as well as review “existing regulations interfering with medical, biotech and pharmaceutical collaboration” between the two countries.

Source : Belly of the Beast Cuba