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Biopharmaceutical Solidarity: Cuban Cancer Vaccines and 21st Century Socialist Science


This dissertation examines the social, political and economic context of Cuba’s biopharmaceutical sector and its expanding global footprint, shaped by socialism. I examine the counter-current technology transfer of Cuban biopharmaceutical innovation, specifically, their novel therapeutic cancer vaccines. My research brings together the anthropology of pharmaceuticals, science and technology studies of the Global South and post-socialist studies, affording a new analysis of the relationship between political economy and scientific innovation. I conducted ten months of ethnographic research over four years with clinicians, researchers, administrators, regulators, drug marketers, tobacco workers, former patients and others involved with Cuban cancer vaccines, both in Cuba and in a collaborating cancer center in the US.

Investigating the expansion of socialist biopharmaceutical innovation, I found new ways of thinking about the relationship between people, tumors and tobacco. My findings reveal a pharmaceutical sector growing through medical solidarity, offering an alternative approach to thinking about value. I show how Cuban “therapeutic vaccines” are linked to a term increasingly circulating in Cuba known as “cronicidad,” referring to the goal for the patient with terminal cancer to be reintegrated into their social milieu. Drawing on interviews with Cubans involved in tobacco production as well as biotech researchers working in cancer vaccine development, I introduce a new term, “biocompanion,” to conceptualize chronic relations between humans, tumors and tobacco.

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