Today, Cuba has a relatively strong domestic pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry, which responds to the needs of the population and to export opportunities, but things were very different in the late 1970s.
At that time, Cuba had to rely on expensive imports of vaccines and drugs, a dependence all the more difficult in the context of the United States embargo which restricted the sale of medicines from the US to Cuba.
A UNIDO project beginning in 1978 enlisted the expertise of an Indian company, Sarabhai Chemicals, to help establish Cuba’s first chemical synthesis plant for the production of generic pharmaceutical products.
The plant was designed by UNIDO experts and equipped with Indian technology, financed by India’s contribution through the Industrial Development Fund and UNDP resources executed by UNIDO. The multipurpose pharmaceutical plant, located in the Havana municipality of Cotorro, was an early example of successful South-South cooperation.
The turnkey plant, which initially produced 15 different medical treatments, was inaugurated on 8 March 1981 by Vilma Espín, a Communist Party leader and founder of the Federation of Cuban Women. In honour of International Women’s Day the plant was named the Empresa Farmacéutica 8 de Marzo.
Over time, the plant was expanded to cover different production lines. The introduction of advanced pilot technology for the production of pharmaceutical compounds and the training provided for numerous Cuban experts created the conditions for the scaling up of generic medicine production in the following years.
Today, the Empresa Farmacéutica 8 de Marzo is affiliated with the state-owned Biotechnological and Pharmaceutical Industries Business Group, known as Biocubafarma, which produces more than half of the country’s essential medicines. Cuba’s biopharmaceutical industry represents one of the island’s largest production sectors with the greatest export potential, and the country is a world-leader in the development of vaccines and drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, circulatory diseases and cancer.