Push to change genetic materials treaty over disease pandemic fears

The world’s governments are mulling a change to a treaty covering biological materials because current wording may hamper responses to outbreaks of infectious disease, says a group of scientists. 

If genetic sequence data is included under the Nagoya Protocol, which has regulated access to genetic resources since 2014, sharing pathogen genetic resources (PGRs) could become much more difficult, or even illegal, write Carolina dos S Ribeiro, Marion P. Koopmans, and George B. Haringhuizer, in a new policy article in Science

Changes to the Nagoya Protocol’s treatment of PGRs will be under consideration in November when the United Nations holds its Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Egypt.{%recommended 6881%}

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended sharing “relevant information … including pathogen sequences” during disease outbreaks. Sequencing active pathogens can help scientists develop appropriate responses.  

If that data becomes covered by the protocol, “the free sharing of sequences for surveillance and tracking of pathogens and outbreaks could become illegal”, the scientists write. 

They outline a bureaucratic nightmare in which the end users of genetic resources – in the case of a pathogen outbreak, researchers and public health scientists working against the clock – must individually negotiate with the government of the country of origin of the resource. Further, different isolates could have differing terms of use, again depending on the country of origin. 

“The combination of partial implementation of the [protocol], lack of clarity on rules and processes, and differences in interpretation at a national level are foreseeable major hurdles, especially in outbreak situations when the timeliness of access to PGR [pathogen genetic resources] is of essence,” they write. 

Sequencing pathogens has become increasingly important – and viable – over the past decade. But as scientific frontiers expand, policies can become out-dated. 

The Nagoya Protocol’s intent is to ensure the “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” of genetic resources and was meant to deter “bio-piracy”, which occurs when companies or individuals benefit from biological resources they find elsewhere. It was adopted in 2010 as a supplement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. 

But drawing the line between commercial and non-commercial use can be difficult, the authors note, and some definitions and rules are not clear.

Other scientists have warned that including genetic data in the protocol could stifle general research, as well.  

“If this comes to pass the regulatory burden will be enormous,” Andreas Graner, head of Germany’s Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research told the journal Science in July, 2018. “A lot of research could stop in its tracks”. 

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