Straits Times Press
June 27, 2004,
Sunday, p. 1
BIOPIRACY AND THE LAW
OF THE JUNGLE
Elizabeth John and K.T. Chelvi
you heard the story about the pharmaceutical giant and the delicate
flowering plant? It is an oft-quoted tale but one worth repeating.
[Editorial comment by Michael F. Brown: Alas, it isn't worth
repeating. The story of vinblastine and vincristine, repeated endlessly
in the press, is grossly inaccurate--arguably, a complete canard.
For details on how it significantly misrepresents the truth, see
Who Owns Native Culture, pp. 136-138]
the early 1950s, following clues from indigenous medicine men in
Madagascar, researchers at Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals extracted two
powerful cancer-fighting alkaloids from the rosy periwinkle: vinblastine
and vincristine. Global sales of the two substances, patented by
Eli Lilly, earned it hundreds of millions of dollars, but not a
sen went to Madagascar or the medicine men.
notorious example in a long history of such incidences, the rosy
periwinkle case would today be termed bio-piracy. It put tropical
countries, home to much of the world's biodiversity, on high alert
and cleanly divided them from the developed countries, which had
the capital and capability to turn resources like plants, into life-
saving, money-making medicines.
divide has also marked India's long war to rescue extracts of neem
and tumeric from being patented by biotechnology powerhouses who
know it as a medicinal plant, not a part of life. Years after the
end of Eli Lilly's patent, the rosy periwinkle story and others
like it serve as cautionary tales for resource-rich countries competing
for biotech dollars - countries like Malaysia.
this month, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr
Jamaludin Jarjis met industry players at Bio 2004, the biotech industry's
annual conference and exhibition. He was part of the Malaysian delegation
to San Francisco, looking to attract possible partnerships in the
field and investments in Malaysia.
companies that did show an interest were the world's biggest biotech
group, Amgen, another pharmaceutical giant, Chiron, and Novartis,
which ranked seventh on the US Top 10 Sellers of Prescription Drugs
in 2003.Among resources on offer to investors were excellent facilities
at competitive rates, support agencies, a strong information-technology
base and our tropical rainforest. The offer of such a precious and
depleting resource seemed the sort of thing that should make us
dizzy with paranoia but apparently not, says Forest Research Institute
Malaysia director-general Datuk Dr Abdul Razak Mohd Ali. Taking
a practical view to things he says, we are already losing such resources
to thieves masquerading as tourists, who pick up a leaf or shoot
and take it home for testing. "That's all they need. They don't
need a kilo."
FRIM has long been receiving requests for samples, from institutions
with offers of payment, but FRIM has refused. "If they (the
institutions) discover something and patent it, we would stand to
lose a lot. "It is better to bring them here in an organised
manner, sign good agreements and have our researchers participate
in the project."
Park Malaysia's chief executive officer Datuk Salleh Ismail thinks
along the same lines. He believes setting up a biodiversity centre
in Raub to bio prospect and conduct research, is just about being
systematic and organised. Located
within minutes of a tropical forest reserve, the centre will have
a resource centre, herbarium, offices for research and development
activities and on-site laboratories for analysing and processing
here will be focused on rare medicinal plants, particularly those
reputed for their anti-cancer properties. About 12 have been identified
and research will soon begin, says TPM. In
the near future, the centre could be opened to expeditionary scientists,
both local and foreign, to utilise it as a base out in the fields,
while they conduct key research.
we declaring open season on our genetic resources? Salleh was asked,
and he said "no". "Drug
discovery no longer means going down the jungle track. For big research
institutions, it is all about work in laboratories. "Malaysia
though, must also not miss the opportunity to explore the treasures
for ourselves." Salleh
concedes that things could go wrong but says that not all scientists
will require institutions carrying out research at Raub to sign
agreements and register each sample they take out of the forest.
He adds that TPM, already big on biotech research, will carry on
with its programmes whether foreign researchers come or not, he
the Raub centre, TPM researchers will have help from indigenous
storehouse of information on the healing power of herbs, the history
of drug discovery is replete with stories of their knowledge being
sought but rarely compensated. This
traditional knowledge system is not recognised by existing laws,
says University of Malaya law lecturer Gurdial Singh Nijar.
of Indigenous People's Knowledge Systems and Protecting Biodiversity,
Gurdial says allowing corporations to use this knowledge and own
it with intellectual property rights means marginalising alternative
knowledge systems. The
knowledge, he points out, is as essential as the plants and herbs
are. One is useless without the other. Recognising it in law, ensures
it is preserved.
concern raised following Malaysia's offer to foreign biotech firms,
was that Malaysia is without a national biotechnology policy. In
an exclusive interview with New Straits Times last week, Jamaludin
assured that one such policy was in the works. However,
pulling in investors before setting down goals and strategies, raises
the question of whether we know where we are headed and how we want
to handle problematic issues. "We
need this policy," says Third World Network's Chee Yoke Ling,
"and the public should have a chance to comment on it."
we considered how we want to deal with issues of bio prospecting,
safeguarding of traditional knowledge and possible mishaps from
the use of biotechnology? Chee asks. She
also expresses concern about a lack of key legislation like a Biosafety
Act and an Access and Benefit Sharing Act that would address environmental
and health problems as well as economic loss that could arise from
venturing into biotechnology.
the Convention on Biological Diversity stresses the importance of
domestic legislation. Enacting laws to govern resources is one way
host countries can control foreign access to their genetic resources.
This is especially so when it comes to working with US-based firms,
because the country is not a signatory to the convention.
the greatest doubts raised thus far is whether we are operating
on the wrong assumption - that everything we touch in the forest
will instantly turn to gold.On making money out of biotech, an Associated
Press report on Bio 2004 quoted economist Joseph Cortright as saying
that luring biotech in the hope of saving a community's economy,
is a laughable notion. He explained that San Francisco, host to
the conference and the centre for biotech in the US, finds industries
concentrated there because of the built-in venture capital community,
vibrant academic institutions and highly educated workforce.
cluster around universities and each other, so they could easily
swap technology and scientists, making it difficult for other regions
to launch such industries from scratch. But for all its promise,
said the report, the biotech industry has lost a combined US$40
billion (RM152 billion) since its inception in 1976. Last year,
it lost US$5.4 billion, said an Ernst and Young study. Combined
annual revenues of the biotech companies were about US$30 billion.
That's the same amount a single pharmaceutical giant - Pfizer Inc
- took in last year.
performance of our own Bio Valley has also been less than spectacular.
Reports in April showed that only three companies had signed up
to establish plants there thus far. "There
is a lot of disquiet about the biotechnology industry among consumers
and business," says Gurdial.
wonders if we are not going down the same road as we did with rubber
and tin: inviting big corporations, which will use up the resource
and leave or like many other industries, fall because a cheaper
production centre has opened elsewhere. "Are
we using the tried and failed formula of competing with every other
Third World country for the limited amount of foreign direct investments
available? We must be cautious not to be seduced by promises,"
is obvious that Malaysia is pinning its hopes on biotechnology.
The sector was identified as the new wealth-generating technology
under the Eighth Malaysia Plan. Chee
asks if anyone has done an economic viability study on the biotech
industry and this is a valid question, considering that on a global
scale, all is not well for biotech.
landmark 1991 bio prospecting between pharmaceutical giant Merk
and Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity ended in 1999
after the failure to produce a single commercially viable drug,
The Scientist reported last year. Painful proof that not every herb
and tree turns into a money-spinner.
term "stiff competition" is an understatement in this
industry. It has to be when authorities offer to change adjust parking
requirements to suit the needs of biotech investors. Governors and
mayors from across the US were offering this in addition to tax
breaks, government grants and help in securing permits at the same
convention in which Malaysia was wooing investors.
a battle like this, says Chee, it may come down to a race of who
can give away more, namely give up rights over valuable resources.
Already, Razak warns against Malaysia being too strict with regulations.
Investors can go elsewhere.
property lawyer Teoh Bong Kwang also feels legislating access and
benefit-sharing may inhibit the growth of the industry. It should
be in the form of agreements. So, will we be left doing the ground
work and simply facilitating things for the big firms? Will the
greatest draw end up with these firms having being access to our
genetic resources? Salleh says, this will not happen. He is confident
that if we can create a more efficient system, consolidate research
facilities and invest in bright minds, we have every chance of making
inroads into the admittedly tough arena.
both Salleh and Razak say that Malaysia does need to look into the
nuts and bolts of the system, look beyond building facilities. We
need a centralised mechanism for permits, a one-stop application
processing centre, patent lawyers who understand both science and
the law in order to ensure we get a fair deal in research agreements.
More importantly, we need to boost funding, manpower and equipment
of agencies that are already doing good work; agencies like FRIM,
Mardi, the Institute for Medical Research and scientists in all
our universities, says Razak.The Government has also got to start
dealing with the difficult issues and public concerns regarding
biotechnology, says Chee.
society advances, they will be confronting administrators and legislators
with ethical questions about biotechnology, questions about genetically
modified foods, privacy issues with regards to personal genetic
data, clinical trials and cloning. They have to be able to discuss
these issues with a citizenry that is growing more informed by the
day and yet remains deeply religious and traditional in many ways.
all means, let's get onto the biotechnology bandwagon, but let's
us do so with a well-thought-out plan and our eyes wide open.Considering
all we know, it would be tragic if Malaysia ends up as the next
unfortunate example everybody cites.