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  • Big hurdles limit South's health biotech cooperation


[KANDY, SRI LANKA] Collaboration in medical biotechnology is "under-harnessed" among developing countries and hampered by challenges such as a lack of dedicated funding, an international biotechnology meeting has heard.

Yet collaboration in the field is on the rise, and it could address shared health problems and reduce the costs of health products, according to Halla Thorsteinsdóttir, a public health professor at the University of Toronto, Canada.

She was presenting findings from an international study that analysed 640,000 medical biotechnology papers from 13 developing countries, published between 1994 and 2005, at the 5th Asian Conference on Biotechnology and Development in Sri Lanka last week (16 December).

The study identified obstacles to South–South cooperation in the field, including misalignment with national research priorities and regulations, delays in, and the high cost of, moving products across borders, and national differences in regulatory processes which hamper cooperation on manufacturing and marketing new health products.

Only three per cent of papers on health biotechnology resulted from South–South collaborations, compared with 40 per cent from North–South collaborations.

Kanikaram Satyanarayana, deputy director general for publications at the Indian Council of Medical Research,said South-based scientists publish less in high-impact journals than their North-based peers, which also makes them less visible as potential collaborators.  

With 423 South-South papers in the field, Brazil was in the lead, followed by China (287), Argentina (248) and India (223).

Most of the collaborations identified in the study focused on commercial activities. Examples include a Latin American diagnostic kit for Chagas disease, a cholera vaccine developed by Bangladesh and India, and a cheap meningitis vaccine for Africa made by Brazil and Cuba. Also, China is working with Thailand on clinical trials of a traditional Chinese medicine for HIV treatment.

Delegates called for better collaboration between the leading developing countries and countries with small economies, and also for intra-regional cooperation and trade.

S. R. Rao, advisor at India's department of biotechnology, said countries should share resources such as diagnostic kits and testing facilities.

"We need to integrate our resources regionally and share them with others," he said.

Diran Makinde, director of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development initiative, said more regional collaboration would avoid the unnecessary repetition of clinical trials on the same products in different countries. Harmonising regulatory and biosafety laws regionally could also lead to better biotechnology trade within developing regions, instead of depending on the North for trade, he said.

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