United States bans most government scientists from travel to Cuba

Image result for Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) conference next week that several U.S. collaborators


By Richard Stone, Science Magazine, 

HAVANA—To celebrate its 80th anniversary, the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) here is throwing a birthday bash: a conference next week that several U.S. collaborators were planning to attend. All but one has backed out, says IPK virologist María Guadalupe Guzmán. Some, she says, were unsettled by recent claims that U.S. diplomats in Cuba suffered what the Department of State has described as “health attacks.” And two researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told IPK they had to pull out because agency officials forbade them from traveling to Cuba.

Three years after the United States and Cuba announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, the atmosphere for cooperation has grown sharply chillier. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would roll back the rapprochement, and his administration followed through last month with rules that limit travel to Cuba from the United States, and where Americans can spend money on the island. The new regulations don’t explicitly target science and have exemptions for academics. (The CDC referred Science to the State Department; a spokesperson explained that “short-term travel by U.S. government officials to Cuba is currently limited to those involved with the ongoing investigation” into the alleged attacks.) And the closure of the U.S. consulate here in October means that Cubans must travel to a third country to apply for a U.S. visa, all but shutting down visits by Cuban scientists to the United States.

The United States’s “new hostile policy towards Cuba undermines confidence” in joint research, says Luis Montero-Cabrera, a chemist at the University of Havana. The Trump administration, adds John Van Horn, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, “has likely shut the door to many U.S.-Cuban interactions.”

The toxic political atmosphere injects uncertainty into several budding initiatives. One focuses on arboviruses, mosquito-borne pathogens that include the Zika, chikungunya, and dengue viruses. After a call for proposals on arbovirus research with Cuba, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved in June four 1-year grants, each paying up to $50,000. Modest by U.S. standards, the grants—administered by CRDF Global, a nonprofit in Arlington, Virginia—are a bonanza for Cuban scientists, who have scarce resources for research. IPK won all four grants, including studies of dengue immunity and tests of the Wolbachia bacterium’s ability to tamp down arbovirus transmission.

According to Guzmán, NIH informed IPK that the grants have been “put on hold.” An NIH spokesperson was unable to confirm the grants’ status before Science went to press. A CRDF official says the holdup is not political; it involves long-standing difficulties in transferring funds to Cuba.

Other U.S. science activities on the island are in limbo. In 2015, Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, became the first NIH awardee ever to receive funds for use in Cuba, says Arachu Castro, director of Tulane’s Collaborative Group for Health Equity in Latin America. “We continue to plan joint research and teaching activities,” Castro says, “but in light of the new U.S. regulations, we are mindful of the need to have a plan B.” Contingency planning is also underway at USC, which last year inked an agreement with the Cuban Center for Neuroscience here.

And Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health is unsure whether a memorandum of understanding signed in June 2016 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services continues to carry weight. “We don’t know what will happen,” says the health ministry’s Ileana Morales Suárez. “But we aren’t ready to give up on exchanges with U.S. scientists.”

The news for Cuban science is not entirely dispiriting. In October, the European Union’s flagship research program, Horizon 2020, announced it would allow Cubans to apply for grants together with European colleagues. And some U.S. collaborations remain on track. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sponsored a joint research cruise last summer with the National System of Protected Areas of Cuba (SNAP) that circumnavigated the island, assessing coral reefs. This month, SNAP will host several U.S. scientists here to discuss next steps, including joint publications.But SNAP’s workshop is an exception, as U.S. visits to Cuba are tapering.

About 80% of U.S. chemists who signed up to attend Hot Topics 2018, a workshop here in January on chemistry collaborations, have pulled out, Montero-Cabrera says. (Several U.S. scientists confirmed to Science that they will not attend.) And it’s more daunting than ever for Cubans to reach the United States. Cubans seeking visas are being steered to the U.S. embassy in Colombia—a prohibitively expensive trip for many Cuban scientists. IPK had planned to send five young scientists to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston for training in molecular studies of arboviruses and how to organize a bank of viral strains. It’s unclear when that will happen, Guzmán says.

Earlier this week, two UTMB scientists ran a workshop at IPK on how to safely operate its new biocontainment laboratory. Now, Guzmán is wondering when she will have another chance to work with U.S. colleagues. “I suppose this is the last activity we do together” for the foreseeable future, she says.


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