How Cuba Became a Biopharma Juggernaut
The sophisticated system, which the small island nation developed despite limited resources and access to international markets, holds about 1,200 international patents and sells medicine and equipment to more than 50 countries.
We hear little about the Cuban biopharmaceutical industry, but it merits attention. The industry is entirely publicly funded and managed, and is a key component of one of the most efficient public health care systems in the world. Its goal is to develop drugs of strategic importance to the health care of all people.
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But there’s something missing in this outsiders’ view of the country, as it can’t account for the enormous successes of Cuba’s biopharmaceutical industry and health care systems. In light of ongoing debates in the U.S. and other nations about the role of government in ensuring people have the health care coverage they need, Cuba’s experience could prove instructive.
High-tech industrial development isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for many when thinking of Cuba. The island nation more commonly invokes visions of a stunning place frozen in time: Crumbling colonial buildings sit alongside beautiful beaches, while 1950s American cars line city streets awash in the sun’s afternoon glow. Here, life is embedded in a state-controlled and mostly inefficient economy that’s virtually detached from global technology networks.
More recently, the CIMAvax-EGF vaccine for lung cancer became the first Cuban biopharmaceutical product to earn the U.S. drug regulator’s permission to carry out clinical trials on American soil. The product was developed by the Center for Molecular Immunology, which specializes in antibodies, cancer medicines, and other areas.
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There is growing evidence of the Cuban biopharma industry’s success. Local production covers more than 60% of finished pharmaceutical products used in the country, and the industry’s trade balance has remained consistently positive for most of the period 1995-2015.
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Cuba’s biopharma sector has been able to finance many programs carried out within the nation’s public health system, and it is the main reason behind the affordability of the medical products supplied by the system.
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In terms of the biotechnology sector specifically, while Cuba’s government does not publish extensive statistics on the matter, industry officials report that the Cuban biotech sector managed to maintain positive, if modest, cash flows at a time when overall cash flows of the industry worldwide had been mostly negative for decades.
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