Meningitis B is a major killer of children and young people all over the world. It affects some 500,000 people each year, of whom 10% die of it. Up to now there has been no effective vaccine available against the disease in Europe an North America, even though such a vaccine does exist and has been in use for many years in Latin America. The reason our children have needlessly been left at risk has been a combination of the 36-year old US trade embargo on Cuba and the hidden trade barriers erected in imperialist countries against the import of third-world products.
Cuba’s meningitis B vaccine was developed in Cuba’s state-owned Finlay Institute during the 1980s, after there had been an outbreak of the disease on the island. Fidel Castro himself intervened to ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars were provided to advance Cuban pharmaceutical research. This decision has helped Cuba to find cures for many diseases, and it is worth noting the miracles that can be achieved in a country where people’s health really does come first. Even though Cuba is a very poor country because of the embargo imposed on it, it is still able to deliver first-class health care and conduct outstanding medical research. Poor countries dominated by imperialism have no hope of achieving anything similar as what is left over by imperialism is largely absorbed by the kleptocracy. Even in wealthy countries, research activity is often held back by considerations of profit – there is a lot of money to be made from providing medicines to chronically sick people, and it is not always ‘economic’ to rush to find a cure!
Be that as it may, tiny Cuba has astounded the pharmaceutical world by the sophistication of its biotechnology, which is able to produce vaccines, interferons, monocolonal antibodies and diagnostic systems that are the envy of heavily-funded research institutes in the Western world.
The vaccine developed by Cuba against meningitis B has raised major interest in the countries which to date have not been allowed access to it by the imperialist powers. Among those interested have been the multinationals themselves. Specifically Smith Kline Beecham (SKB), an Anglo-US multinational, has realised the prospects of making a great deal of money by marketing this product. It has approached the Cubans for a deal to enable it to do this, and the Cubans, anxious to earn foreign exchange to enable them to buy on the world market essential items that were formerly provided by the USSR, have been more than willing to co-operate. The fact that it has taken over a year to set the project up is due to the US government, which heavily sanctions any company that does business with Cuba unless it first obtains a licence from the US Treasury – licences which are very rarely granted. After months of haggling with the US government, SKB has finally secured the licence. Moreover, it is thought that other licences will follow for other Cuban pharmaceutical products.
The reason Cuba needs a ‘partnership’ with a multinational before marketing its products itself in North America and Europe is down to elaborate testing procedures for medicines that are set up to vet such products before they can be sold there. These tests are extremely expensive and require capital in amounts which only very large companies, or the governments of relatively wealthy countries, could hope to provide. No account is taken of the fact that the Cuban medicines have been in use for decades throughout Latin America without untoward adverse effect. The whole gamut of testing must still be done. It can hardly be doubted that this ‘testing’ is to a considerable extent designed to protect the multinationals’ home market from third-world competition.
One imagines that once SKB have done whatever is necessary to put the vaccine through the ‘safety’ tests, and once the element of SKB profit is also taken into account, the vaccine will be a great deal more expensive in the US and Europe than it has been in Latin America when directly marketed by the Cubans. At least, however, Cuba will receive much needed foreign-exchange. And the vaccine will become available to those of us who can afford it.