Public property

It is good to hear Western leaders say the genetic secrets of human life should be used for public good

Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

When the leaders of two of the most powerful free-market economies take a stance that upholds public good over private profit, it is good news for humankind. The Human Genome Project ( hgp ), aimed at 'mapping' the entire human genetic pool, is at the heart of one of the most crucial scientific-social debates of our times. In a recent joint statement, us president Bill Clinton and uk prime minister Tony Blair declared that "unencumbered access" to the information on human genes "will promote discoveries that will reduce the burden of disease, improve health around the world and enhance the quality of life for all humankind". Well said.

Most debates on the biological resources of the world are reduced, inevitably, to a highly polarised North-South tussle. Corporate players of industrialised countries, backed by their governments, argue that they be allowed to make money out of the new range of biotechnology products. On the other hand, the South, which harbours most of the genetic resources of the world, claims that its biodiversity and traditional knowledge should not be used for private profit of a few but in the larger benefit of its poor people.

But when the biodiversity debate moves to the hgp , it acquires a totally different character. For the simple reason that resource in question is the human body and the thousands of genes that make it. Genes that have travelled and replicated through centuries, linking us with our unknown ancestors. These genes may contain the secrets of several diseases that are unconquerable at present, such as aids (see p46: Gene remedy ). If a bunch of private companies use all the information about our bodies for their profit, humankind will become a slave to its own greed. In that case, it will become important to isolate the genes that make humans greedy and short-sighted.

"This agreement says, in the strongest possible terms, our genome, the book in which all human life is written, belongs to every member of the human race," said Clinton in the statement. Human genes, one can say, have the potential of bridging the North-South divide. A good sign for the future.

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