By Rosa Miriam Elizalde
Rosa Miriam Elizalde is a Cuban journalist and editor of the site Cubadebate. Reprinted from La Jornada, translation by Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau.
Cuba’s antiviral Recombinant Interferon Alpha 2B (IFNrec) is among the medicines chosen by China to treat the coronavirus, the disease that has already caused at least 1,800 deaths in that country. To date, there is still no specific vaccine.
Interestingly, Interferon has been in Cuba for 39 years; the country began the development of this protein with antiviral properties at the same time that the biotechnology industry was being invented in 1981.
In that year, you could count on one hand the number of countries of the so-called first world that were working on this set of techniques that used living organisms — or part of them — with the aim of obtaining products or modifying them to improve plants or animals, or developing biological systems for specific purposes, in particular for the improvement of human health.
This definition of biotechnology is based on a wide range of knowledge that is supported by elite disciplines such as microbiology, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, bioengineering and chemical engineering, molecular biology and immunology. The combination of these new techniques led to the so-called aircraft carrier of science, genetic engineering, which in Cuba opened its first center in 1986.
How can the phenomenon of Cuban biotechnology, which emerged in a country with no previous industrial development and under the obsessive blockade of the United States, be explained? How did it manage to become an economic line in a few years, while improving the health of the population, generating products and the basis of treatments for thousands of patents? Why was this an obsession of Fidel Castro?
Scientist Agustin Lage, who was director of the Havana Immunoassay Center — one of the many that emerged after the production of interferon alpha and beta in Cuba — has explained the miracle. “First a strong investment in education and health, with the guarantee of universal and free access is needed. Taking a stand for biotechnology, even during the worst crisis Cuba has experienced in the 1990s, and the social ownership of institutions that guarantees integration by freeing them from the trap of competing against each other.
“The design of the institutions as research-production-marketing centers that addresses the complete cycle of scientific research and the fact that in biotechnology, as in other industries of the so-called knowledge economy, productivity depends directly on the creativity of the workers, and this, in turn, on motivation. Finally understanding that real, competitive science is being done with first-rate results.”
All this explains why Cuba has the most extensive vaccination program in the world (recognized by the Pan American Health Organization and other international organizations), which includes universal coverage for newborns with vaccines against 13 diseases; epidemiological surveillance with the use of immunoassays for more than 20 diseases; hospitals regularly use medicines such as interferon, monoclonal antibodies, cytokines, and other biopharmaceuticals.
Heberprot-P, a prodigious cure for diabetic foot ulcers that is in common therapeutic use in the national health network, could save a good part of the 83,000 patients who each year require amputation in the United States, whose government refuses to allow the commercialization of the drug because it comes from the rebellious little island.
Other factors play a role in the high public health indicators in Cuba, but there is no doubt that research in immunology and the use of industrial biotechnology have contributed to the reduction of infant mortality to 5 per thousand births while life expectancy is now 79 years.
The combination of these factors has allowed several infectious diseases to disappear, including polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and measles, and others to be controlled or reduced in their occurrence (hepatitis B; meningoencephalitis).
By the way, the man who put Fidel Castro on the path of biotechnology in the early 1980s was a Black Democratic congressman from Texas, Mickey Leland. He brought with him to Havana an eminent oncologist from Houston who used interferon in the treatment of cancer.
Leland was deeply hurt by his country’s government hostility to Cuba and considered the blockade not only counterproductive but inconsistent with U.S. values. “The United States,” he said, “should not refuse to sell medicine; the only victims are the sick and the helpless.”
Leland, a fighter against poverty in Africa, died in an airplane accident in Ethiopia shortly after uttering these words. Another fact hidden in the news.