Wildlife & Biodiversity

Sequence for a just future: Can safeguards for digital genomic data from biodiversity be ensured

Developing countries feel digital sequence information provides a loophole through which developed countries can circumvent the Convention of Biodiversity

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Sunday 21 August 2022

Negotiations on how to regulate the use of digital sequence information (DSI) of genetic resources could further delay the finalisation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The process has already been delayed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vast potential of DSI was underscored during the pandemic when open access to the digital copy of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, uploaded by China, enabled researchers worldwide to develop vaccines against COVID-19 in record time.

Imagine how more data on several billion resources, that is currently available in different databases can revolutionise research. This data is essentially electronic information on the sequences of the genetic material that make each biological resource unique.

Developing countries which are rich in biodiversity feel DSI provides a loophole through which developed countries can circumvent CBD. The CBD was established three decades ago to ensure that communities receive the benefits arising from the use of biodiversity.

According to CBD, each country has sovereign rights over its genetic resources. Anyone who wants to access the material needs to first inform the country and set down mutually acceptable terms.

The person or party must also ensure that benefits accrued from the use of the resource is shared with the country of origin so that communities and holders of knowledge too gain from the use of these resources in both monetary and non-monetary terms.

But DSI is tricky to manage as the information can be used without movement of, or access to, physical specimens.

For instance, US biotechnology company Regeneron has prepared a treatment for Ebola using DSI from West Africa it found in an open access database GenBank.

In 2020, the company received orders worth $400 million for the treatment. Had the company accessed the physical virus, it would have had to enter an agreement with the country of origin and share the benefits accrued from these sales with the local communities.

DSIs can also be used by the industry to create commercial products, and since the databases do not provide the source of origin, the community would not even know that it has been cheated.

Besides, unscrupulous elements may also upload crucial genetic sequences in the open source databases in order to avoid sharing benefits with communities.

Therefore, at the latest Fourth meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework in Nairobi, Kenya, held on June 21-26, parties from Africa clearly said a decision on benefit-sharing from DSIs is important. A failure to come to a consensus could postpone the adoption of the framework, they added.

They suggested setting up a fund under a multilateral benefit-sharing mechanism, which collects one per cent of the retail price of all commercial income resulting from the utilisation of genetic resources, from traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources, or from DSIs.

This fund, operated by the Global Environment Facility, could then be used to support conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and be made available to communities and countries in a competitive, project-based manner to support conservation of biological diversity and its sustainable use.

Researchers who use DSIs, such as members of DSI Scientific Network, too, have supported the setting up of such a multilateral fund. They have also asked parties to CBD to support open access to DSI without increasing regulatory complexity and costs of research.

But such a multilateral fund will limit the role of the Nagoya Protocol, which establishes a legal framework to implement CBD’S objective of sharing benefits from scientific research with local stakeholders.

CBD, anyway does not have many success stories in ensuring this over the last three decades of its existence.

Experience in India shows that even communities are not equipped to conceptualise projects on conservation and sustainable use, let alone win in a global competition for funds. The issue of DSIs entered discussions at CBD in 2016, just two years after the Nagoya Protocol was put in place.

As of now, the draft text of Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework reaffirms the sovereign rights of countries over their natural resources. But the issue of DSI is still being assessed by an independent expert, who is likely to come out with a report in September 2022.

This will be ahead of the fifth meeting of the Working Group on the framework that will be held just before the 15th Conference of Parties in Canada in December this year.

Instead of starting a new system, the international community should try to improve the existing one. For one, it would help if DSIs are uploaded into databases with the sources clearly indicated, in addition to access and benefit sharing contracts.

The use of meta-data with sequences and unique identifiers for researchers and a clear definition for DSI would also help.

Researcher groups feel this curtails the usable information available in the databases — only 16 per cent of sequences in database have sources mentioned. However shifting to a new system which may not help indigenous communities might not be fair either.

This was first published in the 16-31 August, 2022 edition of Down To Earth

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