PAUL ELIAS | Associated Press
In a rare exception to long-standing American foreign policy, U.S. officials have approved drug developer CancerVax Corp.‘s deal with the Cuban government to develop three experimental cancer drugs created in Havana, the biotechnology company announced Thursday.
It’s the first such commercial deal approved by the U.S government between a U.S. biotechnology company and Cuba, which has spent $1 billion building a biotechnology program that is among the most advanced in the Third World. One of the three drugs included in the deal is a promising drug that attacks a cancer cell in novel way.
Government approval comes at a time when the Bush administration is getting even tougher with the 41-year-old economic embargo of the communist nation.
CancerVax will develop the drugs in its Carlsbad laboratories and share profits with the Cuban government if any of the drugs are approved for sale in the United States. CancerVax is a small, money-losing company that doesn’t have any drugs approved for sale. It just recently began selling its stock publicly.
The deal also calls for CancerVax to pay Cuba $2 million annually over the next three years.
But underscoring the complex political backdrop against which this deal took place, CancerVax agreed to U.S. government demands to pay Cuba in food and medicines instead of cash. The State Department recommended approval of the deal, which was ultimately granted by the Treasury Department. Both departments said the U.S. government is open to considering similar drug deals, but that it will continue to restrict the flow of U.S. currency to Cuba.
“This is a unique case in that there is the potential to successfully treat a deadly disease using technology not otherwise available,” said State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan. “As a matter of policy the United States will continue to consider license requests where there is the potential to benefit public health.”
Analysts also said the U.S. approval of the CancerVax deal is not a sign the Bush administration is easing its current policy of tightening enforcement of the embargo.
“The goal was to provide a benefit to the citizenry of the United States while limiting the monetary and public relations benefit to the government of Cuba,” said John Kavulich II, who keeps U.S. businesses informed on Cuba as president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. Kavulich said the Bush administration walked a tight political tightrope since CancerVax applied in November for government permission to complete the deal.
“In this case, the Bush administration is loath to provide any mechanism that might enhance the positive visibility of the government of Cuba,” Kavulich said. “At the same time, the Bush administration doesn’t want to be seen as potentially denying a treatment to a sick child in the United States.”
Five years ago, the Clinton administration waded through a similar political thicket when it allowed the pharmaceutical giant now known as GlaxoSmithKline to enter a similar deal with Havana to develop and market a Cuban-made meningitis B vaccine, which is now undergoing human testing.
That deal was a template for the granting of the current U.S. license, which occurred July 9. The company also enlisted bipartisan support from some members of Congress.
“Saving lives shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be a human issue,” deal supporter Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, said in a prepared statement released by his office.
CancerVax chief executive David Hale said he and Cuban government officials formally sealed the deal in Havana late Tuesday night, culminating a three-year courtship begun at a cancer conference in San Francisco where two Cuban scientists presented positive data on one of the three drugs.
All three drugs are known as cancer vaccines, a technology that aims to train the body’s own immune system to fight the disease. Hale said the most developed of the three experimental drugs is called SAI-EGF, which the company hopes to first use to combat some forms of lung cancer. Hale said the company hopes to begin human testing in the United States by early next year.
Hale said he hopes CancerVax’s deal will lead to other similar arrangements between U.S. companies and Cuba.
“The Cubans have spent a lot of time and money developing technologies that could be useful as products here,” Hale said.
Be sure to read about our other articles on CancerVax and Escozul, the cancer treatment from the venom of the blue scorpion. Use our Search link at the top of this page.