The deep freeze between the United States and Cuba is really putting a damper on science.
Strained political relations make it difficult for scientists from both nations to collaborate on research—and the disconnect could have dangerous public-health consequences, scientists say.
Three scientists are making a plea for a change in policy in an editorial published Thursday in the journal Science, written by the heads of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: President Gerald Fink, CEO Alan Leshner, and Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian.
Over a century ago, interactions between a Cuban scientist, Carlos Finlay, and a U.S. scientist, Jesse Lazear, led to an understanding of the role of the mosquito in transmitting yellow fever and to the development of effective countermeasures. Today, new infectious diseases confront both Cuba and the United States, but a longstanding diplomatic breach between the two nations now makes such valuable joint research more complicated, if not impossible.
It is time for both governments to reconsider the rules that stand in the way of scientific collaboration, before a potentially deadly outbreak spreads through both countries and beyond.
The scientists call for expanding the language regarding licenses under the Treasury Department's Cuban Assets Control Regulations. The legislation currently allows civilian U.S. scientists to travel to Cuba to conduct research, but the scientists say it does not recognize joint U.S.-Cuba scientific conferences and workshops.
Scientists from both countries could put their heads together to monitor and research two highly infectious diseases: dengue, which has been reported in Cuba, and chikungunya, which is nearing the country's shores via Haiti. Right now, no drugs or vaccines exist to combat them, in Cuba or the U.S. The AAAS scientists say that Cuba's proximity to the U.S. mainland—just 90 miles south—and the number of Americans that regularly travel there create the risk for a stateside outbreak.
U.S. and Cuban scientists have recently tried to bridge the political divide. In April, members from the AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences met in Havana, where they signed an agreement to cooperate in research on infectious and neurological diseases, cancer, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In May, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D–R.I., an advocate of ocean science research, hosted a meeting between U.S. and Cuban marine scientists. The goal of the gathering was to make it easier for U.S. scientists to get government licenses to work in Cuba, and for scientific equipment to be shipped between the two countries.
"Getting scientific equipment to Cuba is very challenging because of the embargo, but also because Cuba is on the [U.S.] list of terrorist nations," marine scientist David Guggenheim said back then.