HAVANA – A Cuban scientist who helped develop a low-cost synthetic vaccine that prevents meningitis and pneumonia in small children says he was offended the U.S. government denied his request to travel to the United States to receive an award.
Vicente Verez-Bencomo was to accept the award recognizing his team's technological achievement during a Wednesday ceremony at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. He had also been invited to address a gathering of the Society for Glycobiology in Boston on Friday.
Verez-Bencomo said the State Department denied him a visa because the visit would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States."
"That is really offensive to me," the chemical engineer told The Associated Press as he sat on a stool inside the University of Havana's Synthetic Antigens Laboratory, where the vaccine was developed. "It's really a shame."
The State Department said it has a policy prohibiting comment on individual visa cases. The switchboard rang unanswered at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which evidently was closed Friday for Veterans Day.
"It's incomprehensible that a civilized nation can confuse someone who has dedicated his life to saving the lives of children with someone who goes against the interests of the United States," Verez-Bencomo said with a sigh. "I wasn't going there to talk about politics, I was going to talk about science."
Verez-Bencomo led a team that developed a vaccine for Haemophilus influenza type B, also known as Hib, a bacteria that causes meningitis and pneumonia. The diseases kill up to 700,000 children worldwide each year.
Before the development of a similar vaccine more than a decade ago, Hib was the biggest cause of meningitis among infants in the United States. That earlier vaccine has all but stamped out the disease in the western world, but mass immunizations are too expensive for many poor countries.
The synthetic vaccine created by Verez-Bencomo's team can be produced at a relatively low cost because antigens don't have to be grown in a bacterial culture, making it an attractive alternative for poorer nations.
So far more than 1 million doses have been administered to Cubans. Science Magazine last month said the vaccine "may someday save millions of lives."
Officials at the San Jose Tech Museum were disappointed the government blocked Verez-Bencomo's trip.
The museum organizes the award ceremony every year to recognize individuals or groups who use technology to improve the environment, economy, education, equality and health.
"We recognized them for cutting-edge technology and wish he could be here to accept this," museum spokesman Tony Santos said. "We wish that hadn't been the government's decision."
An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News also expressed disappointment.
"Verez-Bencomo won't be here to receive the award," it said, "because he's from Cuba. He's a scientist, not a terrorist, but our State Department nevertheless denies him entry. He brings ideas, not bombs, but we let ideology trump innovation."