Splendid isolation

The people of Iceland have been living in genetic isolation for the last 1,000 years. Now their government wants to sell their genes

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

I s it correct? Can this be done in the name of science? Ever since the Vikings came to Iceland about a thousand years ago the natives have lived in isolation. Scientists refer to their gene pool as fairly undiluted. The family trees of the natives are well documented as well the range of diseases they suffer from.

Such a small gene pool is a blessing in disguise for scientists and for the medical community at large. It makes the task of locating malfunctioning genes easier. It also makes the task of holding these genes responsible for a particular disease which will manifest itself when the gene malfunctions. All this means a big saving in research in terms of both time and money.

Let us examine the facts. In January, 1999, the Iceland parliament passed a bill authorising the setting up of a single database of its 270,000 strong population. The database is all set to be an encyclopaedia containing the genetic and medical records of the natives. What has irked the people most is that this will be done by a private company. Funded mostly by investors based in the United States of America.

The bill licenses deCode Genetics, a private company in Reykjavik, owned by a citizen of Iceland, to manage the data- base. The company has since then signed up with Hoffman-La Roche for 'exclusive access' to the database for probing the genetic basis of 12 common diseases.

It will be the first time that a government has agreed to such an experiment and this could easily influence the future direction of research. But will the people of Iceland benefit from this research? Will they be entitled to a royalty on future use of all medicine which emerges from the experiments that are conducted? Or will they be used as a mine to extract raw material and be given shoddy treatment in the future? All this depends on how wise the people and their government is and the kind of agreement they hammer out with the us -based company.

If the people of Iceland agree to this invasion of their privacy they must also see to it that the principle of benefit sharing is properly enforced and accepted internationally as binding upon all countries and all companies. There are many small tribes that may find themselves the target of companies specialising in gene research. It could happen in India too. Is the bureaucracy in India prepared for it? They also explained how they have been able to reclaim the degraded land through the participatory approach in the watershed development activities. On the occasion, Digvijay Singh, chief minister of mp , recalled the attachment of Nehru-Gandhi family with Jhabua district. He said the district had achieved success due to the effective implementation of Rajiv Gandhi watershed mission.

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