4 de marzo del 2001
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Cuba Searches for an AIDS Vaccine

By Diego Cevallos*

Scientists on the island are working with ''cytotoxic cells,'' and hope to have an effective AIDS vaccine prototype by 2005 or 2007

MEXICO CITY - Cuba is not intimidated by the power of transnational pharmaceutical corporations or by governments of wealthy countries that seek a vaccine for AIDS (acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome), which strikes 15,000 people every day worldwide. The island's scientists affirm they could have their own AIDS vaccine ready between 2005 and 2007.

With an annual budget of just 100,000 dollars - a tiny sum compared to the expenditures of the industrialized countries for AIDS research - Cuba has been conducting AIDS studies for the last 11 years and, though its officials admit there have been setbacks, they affirm they are closer than ever to a vaccine.

If other discover it first, ''all the better. We are not working for personal glory and we are always ready to collaborate,'' Carlos Duarte, head of the AIDS Department at the Vaccine Division of the Cuban Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center, told Tierramérica.

''We still have time, but we must work as quickly as possible and continue making sacrifices, because the objective is worth the effort,'' stated the scientist as he took part in the international conference ''Identity, Heritage and Education in Latin America,'' held at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University.

Far from the spotlights that shine on researchers in the industrialized North, the Cuban scientists began their search for a vaccine by working with the neutralizing antibodies of the virus, which seemed the appropriate route at the time, but now they recognize that it will not provide the answer.

Their research currently focuses on the cytotoxic cells that destroy the cells infected with HIV (human immuno-deficiency virus), explained Duarte, pointing out that his team will be ready to conduct its first clinical trials in 2002.

A vaccine has been a goal of pharmaceutical corporations since AIDS was first diagnosed in the 1980s. Many of the firms, like the Cuban government, have even begun testing the prototypes on humans.

The US-based Merck pharmaceuticals affirmed in late February that it had developed a vaccine that seemed to be effective, and had already begun trials with human subjects. But the company warned that it was still too early to get hopes up for a true cure for the disease.

In January, Italy's National Health Institute reported it was ready to try an experimental vaccine that promises to block the advance of HIV instead of reinforcing the immune system, as other attempts have done.

Many pharmaceutical firms are keeping their scientific advances under wraps for now, but it is widely believed that at least six companies have tested or are currently trying out AIDS vaccines.

Despite its financial problems and the trade embargo the United States has imposed against Cuba, the island remains at the cutting edge in numerous areas of medical research, leading the scientific world to take seriously its promise for an AIDS vaccine.

Cuba already successfully marketed more than 100 high-tech medical products and is a pioneer in numerous discoveries, such as a treatment that blocks the development of a heart attack, patented in 1993 in the United States.

''We scientists cannot make predictions, but we do have expectations and goals, and based on our timetables, we affirm today that it is possible we could obtain a working vaccine against AIDS by 2005 or 2007,'' Duarte pointed out.

But it is not an easy road - a fact recognized by scientists the world over and by the United Nations, whose statistics indicate that 34 million people currently test positive for HIV, which has led to the deaths of 16.3 million, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has caused dramatic social and humanitarian crises.

If Cuba is able to develop the vaccine, it would not be able to conduct the final tests in its own territory, where there is a low incidence of AIDS, but would do so in Brazil or Trinidad and Tobago, the chief scientist explained.

There are an estimated two million people infected with HIV in Latin America, while in Cuba, a country of 11 million people, there are only 3,000 reported cases.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent


Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


Model of an HIV-infected cell. / Credit: Photo Stock
Model of an HIV-infected cell. / Credit: Photo Stock

External Links

Cuba's Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center

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