Can money grow on trees? Win-win strategies for 'sustainable bioprospecting'

April 18, 2005

UNU-INTECH author Padmashree Gehl Sampath will be available for advance interviews in New York on 18 April. Telephone interviews with European and international media can be arranged on 14-15 April. Please use the contacts listed below or email terrycollins@rogers.com and/or mwangi@intech.unu.edu to schedule a time. A panel presentation and book launch will take place on Tuesday 19 April at the UN Secretariat Building, Conference Room 5, 9:30 - 12:30 (details at http://www.ony.unu.edu/).

More than a decade after the coming into force of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 'biodiverse' developing countries are yet to cash-in on their 'green gold'. Most of the innovative bioprospecting partnerships set up in the wake of the CBD, such as the much publicized Merck-INBio collaboration in Costa Rica, and several initiatives coordinated by the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) Programme, have come to an end without achieving tangible results.

With more pharmaceutical companies turning to exploring other new technologies as sources for new drugs, it is becoming increasingly clear that poor countries might never realize the full benefits of their genetic endowments. An expert panel discussion convened by United Nations University and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development on 19 April 2005, at the UN Headquarters in New York, will debate strategies that developing countries can adopt to attract investments in drug research and development based on genetic resources. Invited panelists include David Newman (US National Institutes of Health); Gordon Cragg (Former Director, Natural Products Drug Research, National Cancer Institute, US); A.H. Zakri, Director, UNU-Institute for Advanced Studies, Japan; Daniel Macgraw, Executive Director, Centre for International Environmental Law, Washington; and Philippe Cullet, Programme Director for Europe, International Environmental Law Research Centre, and Lecturer, SOAS, University of London. Additional speakers will be drawn from Stanford University, Harvard Medical School, and other UN Organizations.

The panel discussion will address the findings of a new book: Regulating Bioprospecting: Institutions for Drug Research, Access and Benefit-Sharing (UNU Press, 2005), authored by Dr. Padmashree Gehl Sampath, a researcher at the Institute for New Technologies (UNU-INTECH) in the Netherlands.

Focusing on the economics of the contracting process, Dr. Gehl Sampath argues that potential investors have been put off by the poor regulatory environment in source countries, and the limitations of international processes governing this process (the most important being the CBD and the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, commonly known as the TRIPS Agreement).

"If biodiverse countries are to attract much-needed drug R&D investments, information on how the drug industry makes use of traditional knowledge and genetic resources, and how the economics of this use- process may affect incentives of parties to use, trade or research on genetic resources, must form an integral part of legal rule-making on bioprospecting", she notes.

The book aims to contribute to this process by defining optimal property rights structures and institutional mechanisms for regulating bioprospecting for drug research in developing countries that can cater simultaneously to issues of fair and equitable distribution of benefits, biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, while promoting optimal R&D into genetic resources. Both the pharmaceutical and botanical sectors are discussed, albeit highlighting the differences between the two with regard to issues of intellectual property protection, traditional medicinal knowledge, and biodiversity conservation.

Dr. Gehl Sampath's analysis reveals the market imperfections that shape current international trade in valuable genetic resources, and points out the dangers of a simplistic view of bioprospecting as a 'one-shot' contract between the pharmaceutical firm, the national access authority, and the local and indigenous communities. In reality, the drug R&D process within which both traditional medicinal knowledge and tangible genetic resources play a role is defined by a unique set of economic properties and limitations. The high levels of risk and uncertainty, and huge up-front investments, impose transaction costs on the parties at each stage of the contracting process, which can serve to stall or hinder the bargaining procedures.

"In this context bioprospecting contracts that provide an environment for mutually beneficial exchange with fair distribution of benefits can only be enabled by well-defined property rights propped up by an enabling contractual environment, enforceable in a transparent and accountable regulatory framework".

The key policy recommendations for developing countries focus on how they can:
  • Devise effective policies and institutions to tap the true potential of bioprospecting;
  • Integrate bioprospecting as part of wider health care;
  • Harness bioprospecting collaborations to boost local traditional medicinal knowledge; and
  • Leverage their options in several ongoing international negotiations on access and benefit-sharing.

    "Without keeping in mind the complexities of the economic exchange process, the achievement of goals like new medicines, recognition and benefit-sharing for the communities, conservation of biodiversity and positive economic effects for developing countries from genetic resources will remain an elusive goal. Every actor in this process, be it communities, drug firms or governmental authorities from source and user countries has to be aware that high short term profits in an imperfect legal framework is sub- optimal to the long-term collaborative drug R&D option".
    -end-
    The online version of a recently published UNU Policy Brief summarizing the book's main arguments and conclusions can be downloaded at http://www.unu.edu/publications/briefs/policy-briefs/2005/index.htm. For more information on the book please see: http://www.unu.edu/unupress/2005/regulatingbioprospecting.html

    United Nations University

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