Some like it hot

The Cuban pharmaceutical revolution

In January 2003, while I was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, the program took all the fellows for a trip to Cuba to meet with some of their lead scientists — who’d had some startling successes in biotech. We met with Concepcion Campa Huergo, the scientist who created the world’s first vaccine for meningitis B. That’s a disease which ravages poor countries but barely touches developed ones, which is why the Pfizers of the world weren’t willing to tackle the problem: No money in it. But Cuba, a poor but otherwise startlingly well-educated country, immediately saw the value in a drug that could save the lives of the world’s have-nots.

The scientists also had a pretty wacky sense of humor about Cuba’s geopolitical position. Back in 2003, the Bush administration was making noises about how Cuba might — just like Iraq! — be generating piles and piles of bioweapons. So when we met with the head of the main biotech lab, the first thing he asked us was, “Do you want to see where we make the biological weapons?” We were stunned, then immediately recovered and said, “hell yes!!” Whereupon he just laughed and was like, psych.

Of course, being in Cuba also gave me a chance to see just how hideous was the country’s human-rights record. We met with one of the very few independent journalists in the country, and he was thrown in jail a month later. Cuba struck me as a curious blend: It’s half Soviet creepiness, with the hoi polloi skulking around terrified of the national police, yet it’s also half Irish can-do high-tech optimism. What I mean is this: Given how well-educated the Cuban population is, if the country were able to trade freely with the US, it could easily transform into something resembling the Irish tiger of the 90s — with a high-tech boom in Havana that parallels the one in Dublin. Whether or not Castro would allow such a flowering is another question; educated well-off middle classes tend not to like having dictators running their affairs, as I’m sure he well knows. But the ingredients of a powerful Cuban boom are there.

Which is why I was interested to read a piece in Wired News yesterday, noting how Cuba’s scientific success is creating a nice little market for its pharmaceuticals — yet running headlong into the country’s anti-market culture:

“They just don’t get capitalism,” a diplomat tells me over coffee in Boston. “The elite may watch American TV and read The Wall Street Journal on the Web, so they have a conversational familiarity. But on a fundamental level they don’t get it and don’t want to get it. They still think there’s something immoral about profit.”

Borroto, of CIGB, remembers talking to colleagues about using patents to protect their expanding market. That was the moment Castro decided to pop into the lab. “What’s all this about patents? You’re sounding crazy!” he said. “We don’t like patents, remember?”

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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