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U.S.–Cuba Accord Should Be a Boon for Science

U.S.–Cuba Accord Should Be a Boon for Science
Cuba has world-class expertise in vaccines and environmental research to
share, scientists say after last month’s agreement to promote exchanges
January 12, 2015 |By Rebecca Trager and ChemistryWorld

The new year has brought a new era in US–Cuba relations that is ripe for
scientific cooperation between the two countries, after
Obamaannounced an easing of restrictions on 17 December. These changes
involve relaxing visa application requirements and shortening the
application process for scientists wishing to attend scientific meetings
in the US or Cuba.

Obama said that restrictions between the two countries would be
relaxed for people in a dozen categories,including professional research
and professional meetings, educational programmes, as well as the
activities of private foundations, research or educational institutions.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) welcomed
the news. ‘Working together more closely will allow scientists from Cuba
and the United States to better share data, identify and monitor
outbreaks of infectious disease, and develop more coherent
responses,’ said AAAS’s chief executive, Alan Leshner. He suggested that
these policy changes will go a long way to ensure a ‘more robust science
relationship with great mutual benefit’.

Although Cuba is tiny and poor compared with the US, it has a very
credible scientific workforce and considerable research expertise of
interest to the US, according to Michael Clegg, an emeritus biological
sciences professor at the of California, Irvine and co-chair
of the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences.

He notes that Cuba has made a significant in biotechnology,
beginning in the late 1980s, and it has been active in the development
of vaccines as well as agricultural technologies. In addition, Clegg
says Cuba has considerable know-how in meteorology, disaster response
and preparedness, environmental science related to management of marine
resources and biodiversity research.

‘Positive step’
Any increase in scientific dialogue between the two countries is ‘a
positive step’, according to Mark Rasenick, a professor of physiology
and biophysics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rasenick says
US researchers will benefit from collaboration with Cuban counterparts
in areas like brain mapping, cancer vaccines, interferon treatments,
which were abandoned in the US but have been used to treat hepatitis C
and multiple sclerosis in Cuba, as well as epidermal growth factor
therapy, used in Cuba to treat recurrent and chronic wounds of the sort
suffered by diabetics, the paralysed and the elderly.

In addition, he suggests that Cuban and US scientists could work
together on clinical trials. ‘In Cuba, they have really terrific
records and those could enable clinical trials with populations that are
selected very well,’ Rasenick explains. ‘That would also help them
because it would be a source of funds and help their doctors looking at
newer therapies.’

The new US policy should represent a boon for Cuba’s pharmaceutical
industry, according to Mavis Anderson with the Latin America Working
Group based in Washington, DC.

She says Cuba has a strong home-grown biomedical industry because its
citizens haven’t had access to the pharmaceutical and medical devices
produced by US companies or their international subsidiaries. They were
reluctant to sell their products in Cuba because of onerous US
government requirements to certify specific end-use of pharmaceuticals
and medical equipment.

‘It will now be easier for them to have a market in the US for at least
pharmaceutical trials, and collaborations and exchanges with US
pharmaceutical experts will only strengthen their own industry,’
Anderson says.

Abivax, a French biotech company that develops anti-viral compounds and
vaccines to treat infectious diseases like / and hepatitis B,
said the new US policy will facilitate access to the key discoveries of
life science researchers in Cuba.

The company said it has long recognised the quality of the life science
research that has been conducted in Cuba for decades. Abivax
recently signed a deal with the Finlay Institute in Havana, Cuba, that
will allow it to commercialise vaccines against typhoid, meningococcus
and leptospirosis in Asian and Latin American markets.

However, critics claim that Obama’s initiative is undermined because the
US’s 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba remains in effect. Until the
embargo is lifted, it will be very difficult to have the kind of
scientific exchange between the US and Cuba that is ‘really inclusive
and complete’, Rasenick tells Chemistry World.

Rasenick says that while the Obama administration has made it easier to
travel between the US and Cuba ‘you still have to apply for licences,
which is not a trivial matter’. In addition, it is unclear which types
of scientific activities can actually be pursued. For example, Rasenick
says it is doubtful that the US could help to build a research lab for
cooperative studies in Cuba using taxpayer’s money.

‘We can do cooperation as scientists and this will improve our capacity
to do one-to-one research collaborations, or convene small meetings or
groups,’ Rasenick adds. ‘But in terms of doing things that would require
money, we are going to need to end the embargo.’

Clegg, who is a past foreign secretary of the US National Academy of
Sciences, agrees that the changes will probably be ‘evolutionary and not
revolutionary’, but he suggests that there may be some relaxation in how
money can be spent on joint scientific projects.

This article is reproduced with permission from Chemistry World. The
article was first published on January 8, 2015.

Source: U.S.–Cuba Accord Should Be a Boon for Science – Scientific
American –

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