Here’s A Serious Alternative To Big Pharma: Cuba

Techdirt often points out that the current system of funding the creation of life-saving drugs is broken. But the obvious question is: what can you put in its place? The answer includes things like prizes, but also, it seems, Cuba:

Cuba has for several years had a promising therapeutic vaccine against lung cancer. The 55-year trade embargo led by the US made sure that Cuba was mostly where it stayed.

Leaving aside the fact that politics probably got in the way of saving lives (again), the more interesting issue is how Cuba managed to come up with a lung cancer vaccine. Here’s the explanation from the Wired article quoted above:

Though the country is justly famous for cigars, rum, and baseball, it also has some of the best and most inventive biotech and medical research in the world. That’s especially notable for a country where the average worker earns $20 a month. Cuba spends a fraction of the money the US does on healthcare per individual; yet the average Cuban has a life expectancy on par with the average American. “They’ve had to do more with less,” says [Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s CEO] Johnson, “so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”

The cancer vaccine is not the only important drug Cuba has managed to develop with its limited resources. According to Wired, Cuban scientists have come up with their own vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B, and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants. That suggests the success of the “do more with less” approach isn’t just a one-off, but can be applied consistently to deliver results.

That’s important, and not just for people who desperately need new drugs. Big pharma is one of the main industries pushing pseudo-trade agreements like TPP and TTIP. Some of the worst elements in those are driven by that industry’s desire to obtain longer patent protection and delay the entry of generics, with the justification that Big Pharma “needs” these extended monopolies to pay for costly research into novel drugs. Alternative approaches like Cuba’s, which require far lower investments, offer the hope not just of doing “more with less”, but also of calling the pharmaceutical giants’ bluff that only they can come up with life-saving new treatments.

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