Spotlight on Cuba: How fostering business partnerships with Cuba could benefit the UK and global health industries

Recently, DWL met with a delegation from the Life Sciences sector in Cuba, as part of an initiative by the UK Department of International Trade. At the meeting were representatives from the Cuban Chamber of Commerce and other governmental bodies, as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology agencies including BioCubaFarma, CECMED, CIGB and CIM-CIMAB.

The aim was to discuss developments and opportunities in the Cuban health markets. Delegates identified potential avenues for regional and international partnerships that would promote Cuban advancements in human, animal and plant health which could be of global benefit.

Cuba’s pharma success story

Despite the decades-long US embargo, Cuba is at the forefront of innovation and quality in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. This is partly due to Castro’s encouraging scientific research through state measures and investment to counter the effects of the blockade. Today these measures include increasing inward investment in healthcare, and the work of BioCubaFarma, which coordinates the activities of several pharmaceutical institutions.

The result is that Cuba has an excellent public health service despite being a developing country with low average income. It is also the first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV.

Cuba claims also to be a world leader in recombinant vaccines, with promising drug research in oncology and scar repair. Crucially, its researchers are actively involved in every stage of drug development.

Finally, their business models favour national collaboration instead of individual competition. What this entails is greater consistency and fewer barriers from research through to authorisation.

Why Cuba is ripe for business

Cuban decision-makers are keen to capitalize on their country’s position in healthcare by providing attractive incentives for foreign investment. For example, they claim to offer foreign investors in Cuban life sciences tax free dividends for the first 10 years. They are also claiming to offer marketing rights to foreign companies in exchange for funding clinical trials – at present Cuba is running 23 such trials in 35 countries.

Although its industry is state-owned, Cuba is open to private investment. CIM have created CIMAB SA to act like a private company in order to accept funding, develop IP “out-licenses” and pursue joint ventures outside the country. For instance, Cuba runs joint marketing ventures on monoclonal antibodies with China, Thailand and Singapore. It also has good working relationships with Russia and India, providing further possible avenues for joint research and collaboration.

Local challenges 

There are however certain challenges to overcome in light of future alliances. For instance, Cuba has poor IT infrastructure, with virtually no broadband internet access and few Wi-Fi hotspots. The use of mobile phones is limited, with no mobile Internet access as of yet. Moreover, Cuba is a cash market and credit cards are not prevalent among the population. They do accept credit cards as long as they are not issued by an American bank (Sonegate Bank and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico being the only notable exceptions).

Another challenge facing life science companies and investors interested in Cuba is the language barrier. Decision-makers claim communication can be slow and fraught with misunderstanding when working with developing nations.

Global solutions and rewards

One possible solution to the language barrier is bilingual facilitation by a language service provider such as DWL. Given our expertise in medical, pharmaceutical and regulatory documentation, we welcome opportunities to facilitate understanding for agencies and governmental bodies seeking partnerships with Cuban stakeholders.

Despite its infrastructure issues, Cuba relies heavily on open source software. This means there are low barriers to entry to the health market provided that services are free to patients. There are also considerable opportunities for companies who can turn raw patient data into health technology, with important implications for big data sectors.

The rewards for partnering with Cuba in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors appear to be considerable. Foreign investment will bring much-needed drugs to broader markets, improve infrastructure and facilities, create jobs and stimulate further research. Cuba can also serve as a gateway into Latin America for drug companies and investors in the UK and worldwide, meaning access to new markets and new development opportunities.

Lastly, it is highly possible Brexit might reduce the UK's access to European markets. It is thus vital that the UK secures trade partnerships with other key markets to foster innovation and support its economy. With a first-class reputation in Life Sciences and an openness to trade, Cuba looks promising.