The United States would do well to end restrictions on collaborations with the island nation's scientists.
For a week after Cuba marked the 50th anniversary of its revolution on 1 January, a celebratory 'Caravan of Liberty' carried 50 people, including many university students and scientists, along the triumphal route that Fidel Castro had taken half a century earlier. These people represented the health-care and educational systems of which Cubans are proud, however much they bemoan their other privations behind closed doors. And in no small measure the scientists in the caravan symbolize the foundation of that health-care system in the developing world's most established biotechnology industry, which has grown rapidly even though it eschewed the venture-capital funding model that rich countries consider a prerequisite.
This growth in biotech has been a top-down affair, like most of the changes in Castro's Cuba. At the president's personal instigation, the island nation's half-dozen university centres from before the revolution expanded to at least 35 in the decades that followed. But the growth also owes a great deal to individual researchers' desire to make a contribution. Ask a Cuban scientist why he or she works long hours to earn little more than the US$20-per-month average wage, and the answer is often that they want to make sick people better, with the kudos of having done so. The venture-capital model's promise of riches is nice, it seems, but not essential.
But despite many constraints on interaction between Cuban and US scientists, biotech has prospered in the nation. In 1980, with a scientifically literate workforce at hand and the biotech boom ready to take off, Castro's interest in the fledgling industry was sparked by a meeting with Randolph Lee Clark, the former president of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Castro accordingly sent six scientists to a lab in Finland to learn how to make interferon from white blood cells. The knowledge gleaned from this project has been ploughed into an industry that developed the first vaccine against meningitis B in 1985, and subsequently a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type B — the world's first human vaccine to contain a synthetic antigen.
Unfortunately, Cuba's biotech industry has also begun to feel the limitations of the top-down model. Since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart and had to cease its generous funding of Castro's ambitions, Cuba's research institutes have become more bureaucratic and politically expedient, which has slowly pushed many of the country's best minds abroad. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro, Cuba's leader for the past two years, has allowed the country's citizens to buy previously prohibited electronic devices — but has not allowed them unfettered access to the Internet.
Still, Raúl Castro is 77 years old; the regime will not last much longer in its current form. And America's cold-war perspective on Cuba does seem to be thawing. In August, the state of Florida overturned a 2004 law that stopped researchers at its universities from using private funds to travel to the island. And President-elect Barack Obama has stated his willingness to talk to his country's enemies.
Obama's administration would be wise to start that conversation with Cuba as soon after his 20 January inauguration as possible. The reasons go well beyond biotech, of course, and the advantages could be substantial for both sides. As the global centre of biotech, and with some of its marine ecosystems contiguous with Cuba's, the United States is surely the country with which cross-fertilization of ideas makes the most sense.
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Cuba's biotech boom. Nature 457, 130 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/457130a
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