Enjoyed a fascinating visit to Cuba recently. We’ve been flying to Cuba for many years with Virgin Atlantic, and it was great to take a look at local landmarks like the famous Hotel Nacional. I was in Havana with Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin discussing future opportunities. As we investigate options in ports across the Caribbean, we thought it would be interesting to find out more about Havana.
While in town, I was fortunate to meet Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov, who happens to be Fidel Castro’s grandson. In the back of a 1960s Russian Chaika, we got chatting about our shared love of adventure and the ocean, amongst other things. Then talk turned to the various medical breakthroughs that have been developed in Cuba, and how these could be incredibly useful to the wider world too.
Cuba’s long and challenging history with the US is well known. An embargo in place for nearly 60 years has hindered Cuba’s development, but it has also stopped the US accessing many of its advancements. The sanctions have varied in strictness, and during Barack Obama’s presidency his executive orders rolled back some of the harsher measures. There was talk of opening up Cuba and action was starting to happen, with various sectors from telecoms to travel stimulating growth in the country.
One key area of progress was cooperation on health issues. Cuba is renowned for its scientific and medical prowess; the country sent hundreds of health workers to support Caribbean hurricane relief efforts this year. Fidel Angel Castro Diaz-Balart (Fidel Antonio’s father) serves as scientific advisor in Cuba; father and son have visited the US for a series of academic talks. Fidel Antonio, who is a nanobiotechnologist, described this as ‘science diplomacy’, building relationships between the two nations with practical steps, shared benefits and mutual understanding.
Sadly, the current US administration are looking to roll back many of the advancements made during the Obama years. There is talk of limiting travel and blocking various institutions within Cuba. Regulations banning the import and commercialisation of various scientific innovations could expand further. But Fidel Antonio, Fidel Angel and many others are still striving to stimulate scientific cooperation between the countries.
One breakthrough Fidel Antonio told me about was a new drug to treat diabetic foot ulcers, which affect more than 422 million patients worldwide. He explained how Cuban researchers have developed a therapy, commercially registered as Heberprot-P, which has reduced amputation risk by 71 per cent. Over the past three years around 13,000 diabetic foot ulcer patients have been treated annually, he said, resulting in fewer than 500 major amputations in Cuba. After 10 years, 71,000 patients in Cuba have been treated with Heberprot-P, plus 130,000 others in 26 countries.
Fidel Antonio shared Center for Disease Control statistics, which show around 73,000 Americans need amputations each year due to diabetic foot ulcers. If the US was able to cooperate with Cuba to clinically evaluate and register Heberprot-P, the stats show this could prevent up to 52,000 amputations each year.
This is just one example of many. Put simply, Americans are losing lives because they can’t access the scientific development in Cuba, while Cubans are losing opportunities for further advancements through collaboration with the US. By putting health and science over politics, a lot of lives could be saved.
Thank you to Fidel Antonio for the absorbing discussion and to Cuba’s wonderful people for the hospitality. I look forward to visiting again soon.