Cuban revolutionary scientific advances continue

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Despite the US blockade and other attempts to undermine the socialist revolution, Cuba has continued its phenomenal scientific and medical progress. ELAM, Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, is now the world’s biggest medical school and has graduated over 25,000 doctors from low-income backgrounds, from 84 countries mainly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, to serve in disadvantaged, neglected communities. Cuba continues to develop innovative biotechnology products to improve the quality of life of Cubans and other people around the world. Cuban biotechnology products are exported to more than 50 countries and earn Cuba over $300 million annually. Charles Chinweizu reports.

Cuban biotech

By 2012, Cuba had produced 33 different vaccines, 33 anti-cancer drugs, 18 products to treat cardiovascular disease and seven to treat other diseases (Baden, Davis, Wilkinson, 2015, http://bit.ly/1OpOfLh). In December 2012 Cuba’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries were merged into a single 100% state-owned entity BioCubaFarma, to combine and focus efforts to improve Cuban health and generate exportable good and services. Cuba has developed a raft of innovative unique drugs. It is the first country to develop two therapeutic vaccines against lung cancer, a disease that causes 1.3 million deaths globally each year: CimavaxEGF and Racotumomab (Vaxira) were developed at the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana in 2008 and 2013 respectively. 5,000 patients worldwide have been treated with CimaVaxEGF which has no known side effects and costs the Cuban government $1 per shot to manufacture. It is for those in advanced stages who’ve already been treated with chemotherapy. CimaVaxEGF prolongs life for up to five years, something almost unthinkable for those in advanced stages of lung cancer, whose normal survival rate does not exceed 18 months. Heberferon for the treatment of skin cancer, is another scientific breakthrough developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana. In Cuba skin cancer is on the rise. In April 2015, the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) awarded a Gold Medal for Cuba’s Itolizumab, a monoclonal antibody for the treatment of psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory skin disease affecting 125 million people globally. It was Cuba’s tenth WIPO Gold Medal.

Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein found on all cell surfaces. Its over-activity is associated with uncontrolled cell growth, that is, cancer. Nimotuzumab (Theraloc) is a Cuban anti-EGFR monoclonal antibody for the treatment of head and neck cancer, but the typical severe dermatological toxicities usually associated with anti-EGFR therapy are not seen with Theraloc. Many Cuban drugs are notable for this feature of high activity but low toxicity, giving patients a better quality of life. Glycolated gangliosides incorporated into very small size proteoliposomes (VSSP) have been developed by Cuba’s CIM as another cancer vaccine for breast cancer, a dream for immuno-oncologists. Again in trials, there were fewer, milder side effects and patients survived longer. Heberprot-P is an innovative product containing recombinant human epidermal growth factor for accelerated healing of deep and complicated diabetic foot ulcers, reducing diabetes-related amputations – an important unmet medical need. Heberprot-P was registered in Cuba in 2006, has been registered in 15 other countries, and used to treat more than 220,000 patients so far (www.heberprot-p.cigb.edu.cu). It won a WIPO Gold Medal in 2011 and will undergo Phase III clinical trials in January 2017. China has completed or is currently conducting at least 25 Theraloc trials. By January 2013, more than 90 new Cuban products were being investigated in over 60 clinical trials. In the US, Cuban drugs face additional regulatory hurdles for testing and marketing.

As we reported in FRFI 231 ‘These advances in Cuba stand in stark contrast to the state of cancer treatment in other Caribbean countries and underdeveloped nations, where the plunder of wealth by imperialist banks prevents the development of proper health care facilities and where lack of capital and domination by foreign capital prevents the creation of local pharmaceutical industries to break the monopoly of expensive imported drugs. Also, in comparison to British and US pharmaceutical companies that seek profit above all else, the motivation for the development of cancer treatment drugs and vaccines in Cuba is to fulfil the needs of the Cuban people, rather than to enrich a tiny elite.’ (‘Breakthroughs in the fight against cancer’, February/March 2013).

Cuban biotech research and development projects focus on infectious disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. In 2012, 67% of deaths in low-income countries were due to infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The proportion fell to 13% in high-income countries. The main health problems for Cubans now are similar to those in high-income, developed countries – chronic noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutrition conditions have effectively been eliminated in Cuba due to its socialist free healthcare system based on preventative care, assigning a family doctor to every neighbourhood, and focusing on maternal and paediatric health. In June 2015, Cuba became the first country in the world to receive validation from the WHO that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, which annually affects over two million pregnant women globally. ‘Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible’, said Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. It shows that ending the HIV epidemic is possible under socialism. Cuba’s campaign against the Zika virus is the latest manifestation of this.

Zika

The Zika virus is mosquito-borne. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is the main carrier, but other Aedes species also transmit the virus as well as dengue, malaria and chikungunya. Zika doesn’t affect mature brain cells, such as children or adult cells, but hones in on developing foetal brains. In most people, including pregnant women, it is benign with mild (fever, rash) or no symptoms. Known about since the 1950s, Zika is endemic in parts of Africa and Asia, a neglected tropical disease. In 2007, an outbreak occurred in the Western Pacific region. In July 2015 an outbreak in Brazil spread to the rest of Latin America. where it has been linked to rare, neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can result in paralysis and death, as well as to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development, among other serious health problems such as hearing loss. In September 2016, scientists warned of an ‘epidemic of microcephaly to expand to all countries with current [local] Zika virus transmission and to those countries where transmission of the virus is likely to spread’.

More than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika, mainly in Brazil where 3,530 babies have been born with microcephaly since October 2015, most concentrated in Brazil’s poor northeast. As reported on our website, ‘71% of the north-east’s population, ten million people, do not have access to sewage systems’ (Zika: reproductive rights, racism and resistance, March 2016) There is no cure or vaccine – the ‘very, very best scenario’ is a vaccine in 2018; too late to address the current epidemic. Over 70 countries have confirmed the spread of Zika. In the US over 6,400 people have been infected, with thousands of infections in Puerto Rico where cases are doubling every week. 19 EU countries including Britain, reported over 1,600 ‘travel-associated’ cases by 15 September 2016 (www.ecdc.europa.eu).

Meanwhile, Cuba has successfully prevented a major spread of the disease thanks to a comprehensive spraying program. TeleSurTV.net reports that by September 2016, ‘just three people have caught Zika in the country and only 30 people have been found to have contracted the virus outside of Cuba. The government-led campaign is built on prevention and includes mosquito spraying, monitoring and quarantines across the whole country. Since the first case on the island emerged in March, the government has deployed 9,000 soldiers to carry out a massive fumigation program. Practically all homes have been sprayed across the country’. Dr Cristian Morales, the WHO’s Regional Representative, explained that Cuban authorities have the ‘capacity to organise the population’, an ‘extremely difficult’ action to apply in other countries.

Such is Cuba’s achievement that in November US government scientists will fly to Havana for a two-day meeting on animal-borne viruses with a focus on Zika. In May a Bloomberg report revealed Big Pharma companies were ‘cautious’ about entering Zika vaccine R&D because populations might develop a natural immunity to the virus, slowing its spread and shrinking the market for a potential vaccine (FiercePharma.com). Now with the Zika spread to the US, the ‘market’ has suddenly widened and Britain’s GSK, Sanofi, Takeda and a dozen other western biotech companies are racing to create a vaccine against the virus, with over $1.1 bn funding on offer from the US alone (StatNews.com). With this insular capitalist attitude thousands will continue to suffer from neglected and orphan diseases until capitalism is replaced by socialism as exemplified by Cuba.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 253 October/November 2016