China faces uphill battle against 'biopiracy'
Officials from China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) admit that overcoming these obstacles is likely to be a lengthy process, particularly in the absence of a comprehensive law on the management of genetic resources, and of a dedicated agency responsible for achieving this.
Given such circumstances, some scientists argue that the best way to protect China's rich genetic resources is to intensify its own research capacities in this area.
“When our scientists and researchers are able to register international gene patents, the danger of genetic resources leaving the country will be substantially reduced,” says Yang Huanning, chief scientist with China's Human Genome Research.
As a large and heavily populated country, China owns the most diverse natural and human genetic resources in the world. This asset is boosted by the fact that many Chinese have kept records of their ancestors' biographies, including descriptions of diseases, which offers valuable evidence for research into genetic diseases.
Aware of the importance of protecting its genetic resources, in 1998 the State Council enacted regulations that prohibit blood samples from being taken abroad without the approval of authorities. The Ministry of Agriculture also introduced regulations to safeguard the country's plant and animal genetic resources.
Despite this, the need to protect China's genetic resources from being lost to developed countries remains a major talking point among both the media and academia, particularly with the exposure of several recent cases involving well-known foreign companies and research institutes.
Last year, for example, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that a research team at Harvard University's School of Public Health had collected more than 16,000 blood samples with genetic material relating to hereditary asthmatic and other diseases, even though the Chinese authorities had only approved the collection of 2,000 samples. The Harvard team has also been criticised for the way in which it obtained the consent of those involved.
The US biotechnology company Monsanto also came under attack last year for attempting to patent a natural gene sequence originating from a wild Chinese species of soya. Some experts have labelled Monsanto's actions as a form of ‘biopiracy’.
An official with the SEPA's gene management office says that the agency “is intensifying its management and supervision on gene research in China to prevent its outflow from the country”.
The work includes speeding up new legislation, a nationwide campaign to make public and grassroot institutes understand the importance of safeguarding genetic resources, and strengthening communication between government departments.
But the SEPA official, who asked not to be identified, says that the scope of current regulations is limited, and that some of its requirements are seldom implemented. Furthermore, although the agency is co-ordinating the work of several government departments (including SEPA, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Science and Technologies, and the Ministry of Health) to draw up a new biosafety law, there appears to be no timetable for bringing the law into force, and thereby implementing tighter management of genetic resources.
In order to assist the process, some scientists are urging greater publicity on the importance of protecting genetic material, including increased public education.
“Many people, especially in remote areas that tend to be relatively rich in genetic resources, do not know even know what a gene is, so how can you persuade them to protect their genetic resources,” says Hu Zanmin, a senior researcher with the Institute of Genetics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.