(March 31st, 2006)
A recent report detailing 36 cases of bio-piracy in Africa has been creating ripples at international meetings negotiating a fair deal for developing countries to benefit from their genetic resources and traditional knowledge.“Bio-piracy”, according to the publishers, is a term that refers to “the acquisition of biodiversity, i.e., biological material (plants, animals, microorganism, and their parts), or of traditional knowledge related to that biodiversity, without the prior informed consent of those whose biodiversity or traditional knowledge has been taken.” The report, entitled “Out of Africa: Mysteries of Access and Benefit Sharing” provides 36 brief case studies of medicines, cosmetics and agricultural products that originate from biodiversity (including plants, marine life and microbes) in African countries and that have been patented by multinational companies without there being evidence of benefits accruing to the countries of origin.
Published by the US-based Edmonds Institute with the collaboration of the African Centre for Biosafety based in South Africa, the report was released at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which discussed international rules to regulate bioprospecting and ensure fair and equitable benefits to countries and communities that provide biological resources and associated traditional knowledge.
The report made a strong impact on delegates at the 4th Meeting of the Working Group on Access and Benefit Sharing in Granada in January. The biological resources concerned are for medicinal, agricultural, horticultural and cosmetics uses. In most cases there are no evidence or even information of benefit sharing agreements. Some of the patents claimed also appear highly questionable. Thus, the report calls for each case to be further investigated and in greater detail.
The report’s author, Jay McGown, says in the introduction: “It’s a free for all out there, and until the parties to the CBD solve the problems of access and benefit sharing, the robbery will continue. They’ve got to declare a moratorium on access until a just protocol is finished and implemented. Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Centre for Biosafety, speaking at a panel discussion during the CBD meeting said: “In just one month of searches of various databases including the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office, we discovered these cases across the African continent. It was a shock to see the number of patents given or being claimed.”
Co-panelist Dr. Ossama El Tayeb, head of the Egyptian delegation at the meeting, called the report the tip of an iceberg. There were five possible cases of biopiracy involving Egypt in the report. Reports such as this emphasised the urgency for a legally binding global treaty to prevent biopiracy. Developed countries and their pharmaceutical, agriculture and biotechnolgy industries are very strongly against the inclusion of derivatives in the scope of the international regime. Edmonds Institute President, Beth Burrows, described the report as “a litany of cases of suspicious biodiversity acquisition.”
One of the best known and most recent cases of bio-piracy involves Hoodia, an appetite suppressant that capitalized on the traditional knowledge of the indigenous San people in South Africa. Developed and patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), exclusive rights were sold to a British company. It was only after worldwide outcry that a miniscule percentage of the royalties were made available to the San in the form of a trust. The Hoodia case is still cited as an example of inadequate benefit sharing and questionable prior informed consent. Mariam Mayet said: “When you look at what has been taken in the recent past from African countries, it runs the gamut from biodiversity used for medicine to biodiversity used for agriculture, horticulture, cosmetics, and industrial purposes.
It’s unbelievable how much has been taken without a public accounting and without any permission from the communities and peoples involved”. “There’s a huge amount to be accounted for,” Burrows noted. “It’s not easy to prove biopiracy. Where contracts are not published and national rules of access and benefit sharing may not exist or are not attended to by bioprospectors, or the companies and institutions they represent, it is difficult to verify claims of theft, even when you catch the thieves with the booty in hand, or in their patent portfolios.”
The developing countries are also bringing up the biopiracy issue in two other key fora: the WTO (where they are asking that the TRIPS Agreement be amended to require disclosure of the origin of genetic resources and evidence of consent and benefit sharing) and at the WIPO (where they are asking that the issue be included in the negotiations on a substantive patent law treaty). The following is a selection of 11 cases from the 36 cases in the Edmonds Institute report on biopiracy in Africa:
— Diabetes Drug produced by a microbe from Kenya: Acarbose is a drug taken by Type II diabetics. The German company Bayer filed a patent on a new way to manufacture the product. According to the 1995 application, a actinoplanes sp. Bacteria strain called SE50 has unique genes enabling the biosynthesis of acarbose in fermentors and the strain comes from Kenya’s Lake Ruiru. The author found no evidence of benefit sharing of this valuable microbe.
— Extracts from a medicinal plant Artemista judaica from Libya, Egypt and other North African countries for the treatment of diabetes was patented by a UK company, Phytopharm Plc. It admits that the plant has been used in Libyan traditional medicine for the treatment of diabetes. However, despite the explicit declaration of a lack of novelty, the US Patent Office has granted the patent. The author said he could not find a company intellectual property policy on the traditional knowledge it patents nor any evidence of a benefit sharing agreement related to this patent.
— Antibiotics from a termite hill found in Gambia: In the 1970s, rapamycin, an immunosuppressive drug that is used in medicine (for example, to prevent rejection of organ transplant) was discovered from a Streptomyces sample collected in the Easter Island. The discovery of rapamycin sparked a search for other Streptomyces that produce similar compounds. SmithKline Beecham (now Glaxo SmithKline) has claimed a compound from a Streptomyces strain that it says was isolated from a termite hill at Abuke, Gambia. The strain produces a rapamycin-related compound called 29-desmethylrapamycin and, according to the patent, it is useful both as an anti-fungal and as an immunosuppressant. However, no information was found about any benefit sharing arrangements between the company and Gambia.
— Four multipurpose medicinal plants that were obtained from Ehtiopia and neighbouring countries: A researcher in Tennessee has obtained a US patent on four African medicinal plants. The patent makes sweeping claims for preparations of the plant extracts and against ‘breast cancer, leukemia, melanoma and myeloma’ and ‘viral infection, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, tuberculosis, or fungal infections.’ The patent covers use of Millettia ferruginea alone or with one or more of the three other medicinal plants that are claimed— Glinus lotoides, Ruta chalepensis and Hagenia abyssinica. All of the plants grow in Ethiopia and have medicinal uses there as well as in some other countries. Despite the patent, little appears new about the medicinal uses claimed for these plants. The author could not find any benefit-sharing agreement.
— Drug addiction treatment from Iboga plant that has long been used in Central and West Africa. In low doses, it serves as a stimulant to maintain alertness, for example, while hunting. In larger does, it is a hallucinogen, traditionally used for religious purposes. But in recent years, it has drawn the interest of drug addiction researchers as Iboga reportedly has the effect of ending cravings for addictive substances, such as heroin and nicotine. There is thus great interest in Iboga to cure some drug addictions. Numerous patents have been taken out on Iboga, but the author could not find any evidence of benefit sharing related to Iboga.
— Multipurpose Kombo Butter derived from Central and West Africa: Kombo butter, an extract of the African nutmeg (Pycnanthus angolensis), has been used in Europe and North America since at least the 1970s, when it was identified as the source of cetyl myristoleate, a ‘dietary supplement’ used to treat arthritis. The plant is native to Central Africa. As a vegetable-derived fatty acid, it is suitable for personal care products and because it is of plant origin, it can be used in products that are Kosher, Halal and ‘non-animal’. As a result, a wave of intellectual property claims is being made on kombo butter. Although African exporters are presumbably being paid as suppliers of raw or semi-possessed kombo butter, there was no evidence of any benefit sharing agreement related to use of Pycnanthus angolensis as a genetic resource.
— Groundnuts from Malawi: The University of Florida has filed for plant breeders’ rights on eight varieties of groundnuts since 2000. One of those varieties, called C-99R, is a ‘runner’ type. The University of Florida has licensed C-99R to the Golden Peanut Company, a peanut processor with operations in major peanut-producing areas in the US and Argentina. C-99R has important African origins. Plant variety registration materials make clear that one of C-99R’s major and direct parents comes from the USDA’s plant collection (PI 259785) from Malawi. PI 259785 was collected in 1959 and the Malawian variety bears important disease resistance characteristics that are present in C-99R. The author found no evidence of benefit-sharing with Malawi.
— Ocean resources from African countries: Since the entry into force of the CBD, patenting of marine resources (such as sponge extracts from Cape Verde, Kenya and Eritrea, Seychelles and South Africa, sea hare extracts from Mauritius, tunicate extracts from Comoros) has been on the rise. However, there are as yet no clear rules governing deep sea bio-prospecting. The author, however, could not find a benefit sharing agreement related to any of these patents. If there are agreements, their terms appear to be private.
— The cancer fighting agent of Bitterleaf from Sub-Saharan Africa: A scientist at Jackson State University in the US obtained a US patent in 2005 on extracts of Vernonia amygdalina, an African medicinal plant called Bitterleaf which is native to most of sub-Saharan Africa and is used in many countries. According to the patent, the extracts are effective against cancer. The inventor obtained samples in Benin City, Nigeria. Questions arise as to whether the invention is new and if benefits derived from its use will be shared.
— Infection-fighting mycobacteria from Uganda: A mycobacteria collected in Uganda is the 1970s has been patented at least five times in the US. It covers use of a Mycobacterium vaccae called R877R, against chronic viral infections, including HIV. According to the patent, R877R was originally isolated from mud samples collected in Central Uganda. The owner is a British company, SR Pharma, Plc. SR Pharma’s website indicates that more R877R patents and commercialization may be coming soon but there is no mention of benefit sharing.
— Cosmetics from the baobab tree: The baobab tree, which has great cultural symbolism, grows in much of Africa. The German company Cognis has obtained patents in many countries (starting with France in 1997) for use of baobab leaf extracts in cosmetic products. Cognis’ ‘invention’ is to use the baobab leaf mucilage as a soothing cream. But baobab has a wide variety of traditional medicinal and other uses in Africa, including use of the leaves and use on the skin. Therefore it seems most unlikely that Cognis was the first to discover the soothing effects of baobab mucilage when applied to the human body.
Author: Chee Yoke Heong (TWN)