African ‘biopiracy’ debate heats up

Thorny problem: sharing the benefits of research on plants such as Hoodia remains controversial Copyright: Desert-tropicals.com

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[LUSAKA] The debate is intensifying over how local communities should share the benefits of research based on Africa’s biodiversity while protecting the intellectual property rights of the researchers involved.

As the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meets in Spain this week for international negotiations on this and other issues, some environmental groups say it should declare a moratorium on foreign researchers using biological resources until it can sort out rules on how benefits can be shared fairly.

“It’s about cases of biopiracy or, to use the more old-fashioned term, theft,” says Jay McGown, author of a report released on Monday (30 January) by the US-based Edmonds Institute and the African Centre for Biosafety, South Africa.

But some of the companies the report names say the study is flawed and shows poor understanding of how products are researched and developed. They point out that such research can benefit developing countries by, for instance, producing drugs against neglected diseases.

The report describes 34 recent examples of Western laboratories developing drugs, cosmetics and industrial products using material from African plants, animals or microbes.

“It’s unbelievable how much has been taken without public accounting, and probably without any permission from the communities involved,” says Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biosafety.

“Biopiracy is rampant,” agrees Lloyd Thole, executive secretary of Zambia’s National Science and Technology Council. He told SciDev.Net that a policy on indigenous knowledge, genetic resources and benefit sharing would be presented to the Zambian cabinet this year.

The report cites the example of an appetite suppressant developed and patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research from the Hoodia cactus, used traditionally by the indigenous San people for the same purpose.

The council sold exclusive rights to a British company to develop a weight loss drug. Only after a public outcry about the lack of benefit sharing with the San was a deal brokered that pledged a percentage of royalties to them (see Bushmen to share gains from ‘slimming cactus’).

At the time, the council’s director general described the agreement as a model of engagement between a high-level research institution and an indigenous community, but the authors of this week’s report describe the royalties as “miniscule”.

The report also describes a patent held by UK-based SR Pharma on the use of a bacterium isolated in Uganda to treat chronic infections, including HIV/AIDS.

But Iain Ross, the company’s chair, told SciDev.Net that the bacterium occurs worldwide, and is just one of many that researchers are assessing as potential sources of drugs to treat diseases in the developing world. He added that the US National Institutes of Health are funding trials in Tanzania to see whether the microbe can be used to treat tuberculosis.

“The report’s authors didn’t do their research properly,” says Ross. “They imply that SR Pharma went to Africa and stole something, which isn’t true.”

Ross told SciDev.Net that the company has spent more than US$50 million researching the bacterium’s potential but has “never made any money”.

Also named in the report is Anne Wright of US-based Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

She says that before starting any research, her team “works with the government, appropriate agencies and scientists within the country of origin to obtain informed consent for the work and to obtain all required permits for collecting and exporting specimens.”

“I remain hopeful that one of our compounds will be developed into a marketable drug,” she told SciDev.Net. “In such a case there will be a monetary return to the source country, funding to allow our research to continue and a new treatment for a dreadful disease. I think that would be a win-win situation.”

The report also questions whether the US-based universities of Texas and Georgia should have been able to patent a product for treating sunburn that is based on extracts of tamarind seeds. Tamarind is native to Africa, and its seeds have been used traditionally to treat a range of disorders, including burns.

But Jim Arie, director of the Centre for Technology Development at the University of Texas, told SciDev.Net that exclusive rights to intellectual property do limit access to products by patients in developing countries.

He added that his university agrees that rules should be ratified to eliminate these barriers and to ensure that patents do not impede research on neglected diseases in these countries.

Link to full report Out of Africa: Mysteries of access and benefit sharing