At the WIPO General Assembly meetings from September 27 to October 5, 2004 the governments of Argentina and Brazil submitted a proposal for “the Establishment of a Development Agenda for WIPO”. The proposal was co-sponsored by Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Peru, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Venezuela. The Development Agenda proposal asked for fundamental changes in WIPO. Some of the proposals were specifically directed at the special concerns of developing countries, while others were efforts to redirect WIPO to give more weight to general consumer and public interests in matters concerning patents, copyrights and other intellectual property rights. Among the proposals for a Development Agenda is a proposal for a “Treaty on Access to Knowledge and Technology”. The Development Agenda proposal, the WIPO General Assembly decision and many of the comments and discussions are available here.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) took the step of agreeing to consider the impact of its decisions on developing nations — including assessing the impact of intellectual property law and policy on technological innovation, access to knowledge, and even human health. There is much at stake since WIPO decisions affect everything from the availability and price of AIDS drugs, to the patterns of international development, to the communications architecture of the Internet. As part of the agreement, WIPO held meetings to discuss the “Development Agenda“, endorsed by hundreds of individuals and public-interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including EFF and the Consumer Project on Technology (CPTech) through the Geneva Declaration on the Future of WIPO.

As reported by the EFF, the first session of the Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Meeting (IIM) on a Development Agenda for WIPO was held from April 11 to 13, 2005, where 99 Member States, 16 Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) and 41 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) participated in the session. The IIM decided to admit, on an ad hoc basis, 17 non-accredited NGOs, as per the attached list, without implications as to their status for future WIPO meetings. More info is available here, here and here.

Wired ran an interesting article on the struggle relating to Bioprospecting detailing how companies are traveling to the deepest parts of the jungle, the highest mountains and, even the antarctic, to hunt for plants and animals with commercially valuable properties. The question, of course, is who should reap the rewards?

Thus, the discussion at U.N. headquarters was to debate strategies that developing countries can adopt to attract investments in drug research based on genetic resources.

The concept behind bioprospecting is not new and one of the first major deals was in 1991, when the pharmaceutical giant Merck made an agreement with Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute to collect and prepare specimens for inventory. The first payment was $1 million, but it’s not clear how any future revenue generated from pharmacological discoveries would be shared with indigenous peoples.

However, many countries are looking to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to ownership of the traditional knowledge associated with their land, and to promote sustainable development. The most important is the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into effect in 1993, but which the United States has yet to ratify. And then there is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, commonly known as the TRIPS Agreement.

Although the Convention on Biological Diversity has established a framework for allowing access to biological resources, it assumes that individual states in fact have sovereignty over these resources, a presumption that does not hold for every resource. Additionally, it is already a problem to figure out who is doing the collecting and for what purpose. Bioprospecting often involves consortia composed of public and private entities. Delineating where scientific research ends and commercial activity begins becomes a difficult task, notes a report from the U.N. University Institute of Advanced Studies entitled “The International Regime for Bioprospecting: Existing Policies and Emerging Issues for Antarctica.” The document was drafted in preparation for a biodiversity meeting, the Seventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this past February.

The report calls for the development of regulations to govern bioprospecting that would address a series of basic questions: Who owns the continent’s genetic resources? How can scientists legitimately acquire biomaterials? What measures should researchers take to protect extremophiles? Who owns the products that eventually get marketed commercially from these discoveries?

I wonder how this can be effectively enforced whenever plants and animals often can migrate and thrive (invade?) another territory. How can there be regulatory control over every species? I have a friend who, while doing studies on a plant from another continent, had its seeds put into the local area waters. (Basically, the cleaning people came into the lab and removed the special filters on the floor drain so they could wash the floor – and washed the seeds right down the drain!) These plants found a new, indigenous place to live.

Critics often condemn bioprospecting as a loss to Third World countries. Bioprospectors are seen as carrying off native plants, animals, microorganisms and other natural products with potential commercial value. Then science transforms these products into outrageous profits for wealthy investors.

Yes, abuses do occur but bioprospecting is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Out of 10,000 natural organisms screened for useful compounds, maybe one results in a new drug or other commercial product, and this only after many years of analysis and testing that typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, bioprospecting can be done responsibly. Development of products based on the genes, chemical compounds and structures of natural organisms can benefit not only consumers and commercial firms, but farmers, local communities and natural ecosystems as well.

Rather than bash bioprospecting, a more useful approach might be to understand how a poor country can maximize benefits from its biological resources.

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