In 2012 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Peter Agre traveled to Cuba with trustees of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to serve as honorary president of that year’s Biotechnology Havana conference and to give the keynote at the Cuban Chemistry Society meeting. While there, he also delivered a plaque honoring American physician Jesse William Lazear and his Cuban counterpart Carlos Finlay who, in 1900, discovered that mosquitos were responsible for the spread of the deadly yellow fever virus.
This summer, following numerous other U.S.-Cuba scientific exchanges on infectious tropical diseases, Cuba returned the honor by inducting Agre into the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be honored in this way,” said Agre, who now heads the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re doing a fantastic job in post-Revolutionary Cuba of preventing disease rather than waiting until there are outbreaks.”
Agre’s induction ceremony came during the third installment of a U.S.-Cuba medical conference series focused on neurology, cancer immunotherapy, and vector-borne diseases. The conferences began just as the two countries began the process of restoring diplomatic relations, and they represent a deepening of the scientific exchanges that have continued despite a five-decade trade embargo against Cuba.
“It was a very well-placed and symbolic example of how scientists will continue to collaborate regardless of the political and policy changes between the two governments,” said Julia MacKenzie, Director of International Relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who traveled to Cuba with Agre for the ceremony and symposium.
Vector-borne diseases refer to any number of illnesses where an agent—such as a mosquito—transmits an infectious pathogen into another living organism. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and Zika are among the vector-borne diseases common to the tropics because of the high prevalence of mosquitos. Global health professionals believe they are a major hurdle not only to a country’s health but to its economic development. In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico could see a lot more of them.
“It is heartbreaking for families with loved ones suffering from these vector-borne infectious diseases, but it is also economically crippling due to the cost of treatment and the lost wages due to illness,” Agre said.
The yellow fever epidemic that plagued the Port of Havana during the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last Century claimed several thousand lives and debilitated thousands of others. Lazear, himself a Johns Hopkins physician, became one of its victims after he allowed a mosquito carrying yellow fever to bite him in order to study the disease. Lazear and Finlay’s work was part of the so-called Yellow Fever Commission led by U.S. military physician Walter Reed.
These types of commissions became the inspiration for the Centers for Disease Control founded in 1946 to combat malaria in the United States. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met with the Pan-American Health Organization to devise a similar strategy to eliminate malaria on the island.
“Today Cuba is one of few tropical countries where this illness [yellow fever] is no longer endemic. This and other public interventions increased the lifespan in Cuba so that it is now equivalent to the U.S.,” Agre said.
The timing of deeper bilateral research, the award, and the opening of the Cuban market are serendipitous for Agre. While he originally hoped to use his medical degree to advocate for global health in the public policy sector, he instead spent nearly 20 years working as a laboratory chemist investigating pathogens such as cholera. In 2003, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering aquaporins—proteins that move water molecules through cell membranes.
“It wasn’t my ambition, but it was certainly delightful,” Agre said. “Then the notion that malaria would have an aquaporin component to it turned out to be correct.” That prize, and the subsequent travel it generated, helped Agre delve deeper into health-related diplomacy. In addition to Cuba he has also traveled to North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar to seek universal solutions to global health problems. “The U.S. is a rich source of powerful research, research campuses and facilities, but we don’t have a monopoly on all the talent,” he said.
Cuba’s ingenuity in the face of daunting odds still makes the island one of his favorite countries for collaboration, and he marvels at the idea of how Cuban science could skyrocket in the absence of the embargo.
“The Cubans are very enterprising and quite ingenious. If the embargo could be overturned and more investment could be made, Cuba could recover economically fairly rapidly,” he said, adding that this would be in the best interest of Cuba and the United States. “There are Cuban medicines already developed that have not been licensed in the United States which Americans can definitely benefit from.”