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AAAS-Cuba partnership in health diplomacy celebrated in U.S. release of 'MEDICC Review' special edition

Promoting scientific collaboration between countries whose official relationships are challenging has been a core part of the mission of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy for the past decade. There is perhaps no better illustration of this commitment than the longstanding science cooperation that has been facilitated by American Association of Science (AAAS) and Cuban scientific institutions. Since 1997, this partnership, particularly between AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences, has demonstrated that science can transcend a variety of barriers.

To celebrate this relationship and to recognize the recent accomplishments in Cuban – U.S. health and science collaboration, AAAS co-sponsored a June 25, 2018 event with MEDICC Review, an international peer reviewed journal on Cuban health and medicine. The April 2018 issue of the journal is dedicated to “The Path to U.S.-Cuba Health & Science Cooperation.”

The event gathered the global health diplomacy and policy communities in DC.  Also in attendance – and capping the end of the first day of activities – were the 28 participants from 15 countries in the Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop, hosted by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

In his opening remarks, AAAS CEO Rush Holt underscored the “value of scientific communication between the U.S. and Cuba,” pointing to the special issue of MEDICC Review as demonstrating both specific health milestones as well as the continued potential of the scientific relationship between the two countries.

MEDICC event

F. Gray Handley speaking at the June 25, 2018 AAAS event co-sponsored with MEDICC Review on U.S. - Cuba health diplomacy AAAS

U.S. researchers are collaborating with Cuban counterparts on global health issues ranging from lung cancer, tuberculosis, Zika, polio, and early childhood malnutrition. Cuban Ambassador to the United States José Ramon Cabañas, who also helped open the event, noted that now is the perfect time to share what AAAS and Cuba have accomplished together.

“AAAS is like a temple. It is a space to share with American scientists and those from many [other] places,” Cabañas said. “AAAS always hosted Cuban scientists who came to pass [along] the message of the importance of the bilateral relationship with Cuba.”

Celebrating U.S. – Cuban Science Diplomacy Relationships and Science Results

The new issue of MEDICC Review is a tribute to Cuban and American scientists’ dedication and recognition that shared problems require shared solutions. Specifically, the issue features lessons from long-term bilateral health science collaborations. According to MEDICC Review Executive Editor, Gail Reed, the goal is for readers to inspire others to join forces to address the challenges faced not only by Cuba and the United States, but by the entire planet.

“The need for U.S.-Cuba cooperation in health and science has never been more apparent, and Americans as well as Cubans will certainly benefit,” Reed said. “Whether it is using Cuba’s experience to protect people in the three-fourths of the U.S. now vulnerable to the Zika-carrying mosquitoes, or by testing Cuban biotech products for conditions ranging from lung cancer to diabetic foot ulcers, the scientific and societal contributions are clear.”

Several authors of papers in the special MEDICC Review issue summarized their contributions on health science cooperation and science diplomacy.  

F. Gray Handley, NIAID Associate Director for International Research Affairs, spoke about the first major U.S.-Cuban scientific conference on arbovirus in Havana in August 2015, the first to take place in nearly 50 years. This breakthrough conference included experts in leading arbovirus and vector transmission from Cuba and the U.S., and highlighted Cuba’s experience health strategies for mosquito control. In turn, this complemented the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) strengths in research and epidemiologic surveillance.

Rachel Evans of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, highlighted her and her co-authors’ case study on the cooperation between her institute and Cuba’s Molecular Immunology Center. She indictated that it was Cuba’s significant biotechnology research that sparked their groundbreaking collaboration, and led to the first U.S. clinical trial for CIMAvax-EGF, a promising new vaccine for lung cancer patients.

Helena Chapman, formerly of the University of Florida (also a current AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow) spoke about cooperation between the university and the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute and opportunities for Cuba and the U.S. in eliminating tuberculosis by 2050.

Valerie Miller from the Environmental Defense Fund rounded out the panel by highlighting the SOS Pesca Project, which aims at establishing sustainable fisheries and improved quality of life in coastal communities in Cuba. The goal of the project, Miller indicated, is to support Cuban efforts to establish fisheries management plants built on “sound science and strong partnerships.”

AAAS Senior Project Director Marga Gual Soler and co-author of a MEDICC Review piece on the “Sustained Partnership Between the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science,” emphasized that unless people are made aware of concrete, successful examples of the result of perseverance in the face of diplomatic challenges, then people do not try. She indicated that when AAAS sent their first delegation of high level scientists to Cuba in 1997, the response was not only favorable, but welcoming.

“Scientists are some of the only people who are welcome everywhere,” Gual Soler said. “Because scientists have a different caché than diplomats or politicians when diplomatic conditions are not favorable. AAAS was pleased to be a resource for the scientists in the U.S and their work with Cuban counterparts – and help them navigate, for example, the complex travel issues that inevitably arise.”

Gail Reed reminded participants that though efforts to facilitate science cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba can at times be frustrating, it is important to continue cultivate synergies that address urgent – and shared – health problems

“Don’t only persist – write!” Reed concluded.