Cuba: Vaccine may open window in US blockade

by Patricia Grogg

Havana, Jul 28 (IPS) -- A Cuban vaccine for meningitis could find its way onto pharmacy shelves in the United States, opening a crack in the trade embargo Washington has imposed on Cuba since 1961. President Bill Clinton's government agreed to authorise the British firm, SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, to market the Cuban anti-meningitis vaccine in the United States, say Washington sources.

The U.S. Treasury Department granted SmithKline Beecham permission to create a joint venture with the Cuban Carlos J. Finlay Institute, reported the Wednesday edition of Juventud Rebelde, a newspaper published by Cuba's Communist Youth Union.

According to licensing terms, SmithKline Beecham will initially pay Cuba with food and medicine, said Juventud Rebelde, based on information from international news agencies.

But once marketing of the vaccine begins in the United States, payment for use rights would be made in cash.

The British pharmaceutical company's request had been pending U.S. approval since May 1998. The US-imposed trade embargo, strengthened by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, bans bilateral trade between the United States and Cuba.

The Finlay Institute produces the anti-meningococcus vaccine marketed under the name VA-MENGOC-BC. The vaccine is already exported to 12 countries where it has proven safe and effective in preventing meningitis outbreaks.

It is believed to be the only effective vaccine against meningitis meningococcus groups B and C, which are spread primarily among children, and have mortality rates of 7 to 19%.

Brazil is the largest consumer of the Cuban vaccine, and has administered the serum to the public through 15 massive campaigns in 12 states.

The medical journal "Avances Medicos de Cuba" (Medical Advances in Cuba), says that in addition to Brazil, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Argentina and Syria are among the countries that have been granted rights to use the VA-MENGOC-BC vaccine.

Mexico, Chile, Paraguay and Russia have also been granted rights but have not yet used the vaccine. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Slovakia, Mongolia and South Korea have all expressed interest in the product.

Some 500,000 people in the world suffer meningitis every year, according to international statistics. In the last 30 years, meningitis type B epidemics were reported in Cuba, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Spain and Norway.

The incidence of meningitis has risen over the last decade in England, Wales and the U.S. state of Oregon.

The United States reports an average of some 1,000 meningitis cases and 120 deaths from the disease per year.

VA-MENGOC-BC became part of the National Immunisation Programme of Cuba's Public Health Ministry in 1991. The vaccine is administered in two doses - the first at age 3.5 months, and the second at 5.5 months.

The National Immunisation Programme protects Cuban children from 13 diseases: meningitis meningococcus B and C, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, haemophilus influenza type B, mumps, measles, rubella, typhoid fever and poliomyelitis.

The Finlay Institute, created in 1991, has also developed vaccines such as VAX-SPIRAL, which fights human leptospirosis (canicola fever), a disease that is on the rise among vulnerable populations.

Cuba has international patents on 66 pharmaceuticals, which are produced by the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Institute, the Molecular Immunology Institute and the National Bio-Medical Institute, and the Finlay Institute. Some of Cuba's other medications that stand out, in addition to the anti-meningitis vaccine, include a vaccine for hepatitis B and monoclonal antibodies used to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs.

Cuban research institutions are also studying products to fight cancer, cholera, typhoid fever, haemorrhagic dengue, pneumococcus bacteria and AIDS.

Cuba has 1.8 scientists and engineers for every 1,000 inhabitants - a high proportion even for the nations of the industrialised North - and is home to 222 research centres, employing a total of 34,000 people.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .