Hanging in balance

The future of products developed from the knowledge of indigenous communities is threatened

Published: Wednesday 31 March 1999

I t was too good to last. The honeymoon between the us -based Shaman Pharmaceuticals and 30 ethnic communities across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia seems to be over. In February 1998, Provir, a promising anti-diarrhoeal drug based on ethnic medicinal knowledge, which Shaman was trying to develop for aids patients, was found to be wanting by the Food and Drug Administration ( fda ) of the us , which asked for more clinical trials. Shaman just threw up its hands, and gave up; additional trials mean a delay of 18 months and millions of dollars in additional expense.

Once again, traditional communities have been left in the lurch. There is more at stake than just Provir: the future of indigenous communities worldwide. In contrast to the intellectual property rights recognised by the Trade Related Intellectial Property Rights ( trips ) of the World Trade Organisation, traditional knowledge is taken for granted in the public domain. Hence it is not patentable. However, the Convention on Biological Diversity ( cbd ) recognises the contribution of these communities and calls for member nations to develop a system so that these communities can be adequately compensated.

Shaman was one of the pharmaceutical companies that went ahead with an arrangement with indigenous communities, providing short, medium and long-term benefits to the people. While the first two obligations have already been met by Shaman, the world was watching with bated breath for the long-term benefits to materialise -- for the marketing of a drug developed by them. Which is obviously not going to happen for a while now. On the one hand, the us Patent Office has lowered the requirements for patents on herbal products: the applicant does not have to prove the efficacy of the product. On the other, fda asks for more proof.

Herbal healthcare and 'alternate medicine' are booming in the us and Europe. According to a survey conducted by Harvard University, an estimated 40 per cent of the total adult population of the us used some form of alternate medical treatment in 1997, spending us $27 million on their efforts.

The Shaman disappointment could have serious consequences. The much advocated industry-community interface could be seriously jeopardised. If resource and knowledge rich countries want their people to be compensated, now is the time to act.

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