Representatives of almost 200 nations convene in Malaysia this week to try to agree terms for sharing profits from natural molecules and organisms between indigenous peoples, scientists, governments and drug companies.
But as delegates gather in Kuala Lumpur to update the ten-year-old Convention on Biological Diversity, researchers and pharmaceutical companies worldwide are struggling to make bioprospecting for such compounds work.
Even in the United States, which has a sophisticated legal and governance system, benefit-sharing agreements have been slow to take shape. For instance, five years ago a federal court in Washington DC ordered the US National Park Service to develop a plan for sharing the bounty from valuable compounds discovered in its parks. But the plan has yet to be published and critics are hitting out at the park service for the delay (see box).
At this week's meeting, which runs until 20 February, delegates from developing nations — many of them rich in diversity — are expected to seek a new, binding treaty that would set stricter rules on benefit sharing. But Europe, Japan and the United States, which has yet to ratify the original convention, are expected to oppose such a move.
Everyone agrees that the existing convention is not working well. Researchers and pharmaceutical companies say it has created bureaucratic impediments to commercializing discoveries. Poor nations and local populations are demanding assurances that any commercial benefits will be shared.
These benefits can take years to realize, however, so companies are reluctant to commit themselves in advance to costly deals. Faced with slim pickings and the prospect of complex negotiations over intellectual property rights, major drug companies have scaled back bioprospecting, leaving it to smaller biotechnology companies.
Bioprospecting is thought to hold special potential in tropical regions, home to most of the world's biodiversity. But promising natural compounds could be discovered anywhere. Last month, for example, a report by the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies in Tokyo highlighted the bioprospecting potential of Antarctica.
The report said the continent's arid and salty conditions have led to the evolution of tough organisms that offer opportunities for the development of products such as industrial chemicals, drugs and genetic components. It called for a new regulatory framework between the 54 nations that have a say in governing Antarctica, warning that existing arrangements are threatening funding for bioprospecting expeditions and creating the potential for disputes that may mire discoveries in litigation.
Ironically, many scientists who originally supported the convention have been the ones damaged most by it, says Leonard Hirsch, a senior policy adviser at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and joint leader of the US delegation in Kuala Lumpur. But he is optimistic that despite current disagreements, some course can be worked out to facilitate more bioprospecting.
Privately, one negotiator says that Europe may play a key role in determining whether talks begin on a new international treaty covering access and benefit-sharing: if it sides with the poorer nations, the convention may move towards a new treaty.
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