Will the new U.S.-Cuba dynamic have an effect on life sciences?


Published on December 24th, 2014

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Will the new U.S.-Cuba dynamic have an effecton life sciences?

By Sergio Held, Staff Writer


BOGOTA, Colombia – The world is still reeling from President Barack Obama’s historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations that had been frozen since  Washington imposed the 1960 embargo on the Caribbean island.

While observers attempt to determine what the likely ramifications of the thaw in Cold War animosity between the two countries, the life sciences sector is trying to figure out whether or not the diplomatic detente will have any impact on the industry.

Although Obama´s announcement aims to normalize some basic aspects of the diplomatic relationship, the historic move could benefit not only U.S. companies interested in gaining access to the Cuban market, but also companies from other countries that have already established relationships with Havana and in the Cuban market.

That is exactly the case in which Paris-based Abivax SAS finds itself. The company has already developed a strong relationship with Cuban scientific bodies such as the Finlay Institute in Havana, with which it has signed an agreement to market and distribute vaccines produced in Cuba to some Latin American and Asian countries.

Abivax also has a few agreements with the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB). “I´m looking at this, more from the point of view of what it opens to companies that are already involved, as compared to the past,” Abivax´s CEO Hartmut Ehrlichin told BioWorld Today. “The U.S.’s embargo put some strict consequences on the ability of U.S. companies, including banks and contract research organizations, etc., to be working with us,” he added.

“I think that, hopefully, these barriers will be disappearing as a consequence of the announcement and this will open up very new opportunities for companies that are already engaged with Cuba.

“This is, or was, a barrier for us and for other companies that want to engage in that kind of relationship with the Cuban biomedical industry,” he said. The improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations “is going to facilitate the ability to do business with Cuba to a great extent,” he added.

In fact, Ehrlich´s expectations are reasonable if the key components of the updated policy approach with Cuba published by the White House are taken into account. “U.S.- owned or controlled entities in third countries will be generally licensed to provide services to, and engage in financial transactions with, Cuban individuals in third countries,”

according to the White House in a fact sheet published for the press.

“In addition, general licenses will unblock the accounts at U.S. banks of Cuban nationals who have relocated outside of Cuba and permit U.S. persons to participate in third-country professional meetings and conferences related to Cuba,” it added.



As for the commercial opportunities with Cuba, it is not clear yet whether Obama´s decision will open up a door for biologicals to reach the Cuban population. Despite the fact that a key component of Obama´s decision is to authorize expanded commercial sales and exports from the U.S. of certain goods and services, not much in terms of clarification was provided.

The only detailed information released to the public refers to the agricultural sector. However, Obama´s announcement could encourage some companies in the sector that understand

the country’s potential in the research and development field of biotech products and vaccines.

“With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities,” Obama said.

Although hopeful, Ehrlich is taking a sober view of the shortterm impact of the new relationship between Washington and Havana.

“We of course do not yet know the details, the timetables, etc.; we can only speak in general terms,” said Ehrlich. “I believe that these changes, in general, facilitate the access to the global discoveries in the medical arena and in the life sciences sector in which Cuba has been doing a lot, and this has to do, of course, in particular with biologic drugs and vaccines.”

In any case, it is still unclear how the timing will be and if the embargo will be totally lifted after Obama´s decision. “An important step has been given, but the essential, which is the end of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba, is still to be solved,” Cuban President Raul Castro said.

However, companies from the sector, including Abivax, praised Washington’s announcement.

“The initiative that President Obama and Raul Castro have taken to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba is an important development for health care globally and for the life science industry in Cuba,” said Abivax´s chairman Phillipe Pouletty. //



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