Cuba and the United States signed a public health agreement Monday promising to work together in the fight against Zika and cancer.
Cuban Health Minister Roberto Tomas Morales Ojeda signed the agreement at the start of a three-day visit to the United States.
Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the memorandum of understanding allows the United States to tap into Cuba’s critical expertise combating tropical viruses spread by the aedes aegypti mosquito.
“There is an epidemiological value in communicating with Cuba,” Kolker said. “Zika has focused people’s minds on the close relationship we have because of geographic proximity and the possible impact of climate change in which some diseases that were just known in tropical areas are spreading to the continental United States.”
Cuba was one of the last countries in the hemisphere to detect cases of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that is believed responsible for birth defects and other complications.
The Cuban government has conducted an aggressive anti-Zika campaign, sending thousands of military personnel and police door-to-door to fumigate for mosquitoes, dispatching doctors to airports and cruise ship terminals to monitor travelers for Zika symptoms, and using state-run television to advise citizens on how to protect themselves against the virus.
The memorandum of understanding also calls for coordination in a number of other public health areas, including global health security, communicable and non-communicable diseases, research development and technology.
Zika has focused people’s minds on the close relationship we have.
Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Kolker said the agreement could also help bring a Cuban-developed vaccine against lung cancer to the United States.
Kolker said the prospects for the vaccine have intrigued U.S. medical researchers, who are eager to help the drug go through the lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process. Under the memorandum of understanding, U.S. officials will help the Cubans better understand the approval process and assemble the evidence needed to gain FDA approval.
Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., already are working with Cuban researchers on a clinical trial for the vaccine in the United States. The trials could begin this summer, White House officials have said.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in Cuba and second-leading cause in the United States.
The memorandum of understanding was the eighth accord signed between the two countries since Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced steps to end more than a half-century of hostility. The other agreements tackle environmental challenges, allow direct mail and the coordination of security data.
Cuban officials declined a request for an interview on the public health agreement, but state media reported Morales would be joined by members of Cuba’s biopharmacy industry, and directors of leading Cuban research institutes and drug control centers for the three-day visit.