BY TRACEY EATON | Dallas Morning News
HAVANA - It was Cuba’s $1 billion gamble—to train an army of scientists, develop a sprawling biotech industry and tackle every affliction from cancer to AIDS.
The bet paid off, Cuban officials say. Since 1990, Cuban scientists have developed dozens of new treatments and drugs, including the world’s only vaccine against meningitis B. And its products and technologies are available in at least 40 countries, including Mexico, Iran, India and China.
But some U.S. officials are not quite ready to applaud. They remain suspicious of Cuba’s intentions and reiterate their assertion that the socialist nation is running a secret germ warfare program.
Cuba ‘‘has at least a limited, developmental, offensive biological weapons research and development effort and is providing dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states,’’ Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for the Western hemisphere, told a Senate committee in October.
Nonsense, Cuban officials say.
‘‘It is scandalous that high-ranking officials in the U.S. government have to lie to that country’s Congress to try to justify its discredited policy against Cuba,’’ Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement published in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
Cuban officials also contend that, after Iraq, the Bush administration lacks credibility to make such an inflammatory claim.
Some others agree.
The Center for Defense Information, or CDI, a private research group based in Washington, toured nine of Cuba’s 53 biotech centers and could not find any signs the country was researching or making biological weapons.
‘‘Revelation of a clandestine effort would severely jeopardize Cuba’s international market aspirations. I can imagine no countervailing strategic benefit that might override that consideration,’’ concluded John Steinbruner, director for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, who joined the CDI delegation.
The CDI, founded in 1972, is a watchdog organization that has exposed wasteful defense spending and questioned the deployment of the MX mobile missile system.
‘‘Today, Cuba is probably the most vaccinated society on earth,’’ the CDI report said.
Cuban scientists say they are proud of their accomplishments, rooted in a decades-old commitment to develop biotechnology. Texas scientists from M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston played a role, according to the U.S.-based Cuba Biotechnology Co.
The scientists visited the island in the 1980s and told the Cubans that biotechnology held great promise. By 1996, the Cuban government had pumped more than $1 billion into the field.
Today, about 10,000 Cuban scientists and other specialists work in the industry. One of their crown jewels is the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a 753,474-square-foot complex in western Havana. It employs 1,245 people and researches how to use molecular biology—including recombinant DNA techniques—to devise new drugs and treatments.
Cuban drugs are now sold in 50 countries around the world but aren’t available in the United States.
Intrigued by such advances, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Princeton University and other schools have visited and studied at Cuban biotech centers. But the trade ban has severely limited scientific exchanges, said Dr. Gustavo Kouri, director of the Pedro Kouri Institute, founded by his father in 1937.
The Kouri center, a 20-building complex outside Havana, evaluates and does clinical trials on Cuban vaccines and antiretroviral HIV/AIDS treatments.
Kouri has headed the center for 25 years. ‘‘For a small country, Cuba has accomplished great things,’’ he said.
For starters, Cuba has difficulty obtaining American medical equipment, he said. “In general we buy from suppliers in Europe and Japan, and that means the transportation costs are enormous, sometimes more than the product.’‘
U.S. law allows sales of medicine to Cuba, but American companies haven’t plunged into the trade; many blame excessive red tape.
Critics say socialism is responsible for any shortcomings in Cuba’s healthcare system. But Cuban officials vehemently deny such allegations, saying that socialized medicine works.
‘‘I’d have to say I am proud because if I have a heart attack and am taken to a hospital in my country, no one will ask me my Social Security number before putting a stethoscope to my chest. Everyone will ask about what’s important—the diagnosis, the electrocardiogram and whether it was a heart attack,’’ said Carlos Manuel Mella, assistant general manager of Heber Biotec, a Cuban company that markets medical products.