Biodiversity: the issue of genetic data threatens the outcome of COP15

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A major unknown issue, the question of the commercial use of digital genetic data from biodiversity is discussed at COP15 in Montreal. The countries of the South, including those of the African continent, will not sign the final agreement without having obtained a clear position on the question.

From our correspondent in Montreal,

The debate may seem obscure; it could, however, overturn the negotiations underway in Montreal, within the framework of COP15 on biodiversity. The 193 representatives of member countries of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are currently negotiating the rules for accessing and sharing digitized genetic resources derived from biodiversity. For them, it is a question of defining general principles to regulate the marketing of a product – from medicine to food concentrate – resulting from a digitized genetic resource originating from a given territory, and providing for compensation for the territory from which the resource comes from.

The Nagoya Protocol, negotiated in Tokyo in 2010 and in force since 2014, provides for the equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity. In particular, it makes it possible to regulate the use of biological resources from a third country. Ratified by the majority of UN member countries, the protocol establishes a series of rules for using a local animal or plant species, including the agreement of the indigenous populations and the sovereign country, the signing of a contract and the monitoring of the sample path.

But since then, science has already evolved. “ Recent advances in big data have shifted from physical to digital manipulation of data sums up Catherine Aubertin, environmental economist and research director at the IRD, the Research Institute for Development in France. Concretely, a scientist no longer needs to export material samples to work on the genetics of an organism, he can use digital to model it, and therefore free himself from the rules of the Nagoya protocol.

Unprecedented technologies

Take the example of a Latin American country, whose genetic sequences of a plant in its territory are stored in a database. There are three main scientific databases: an American, a Japanese and a European. They are freely accessible. Any researcher can thus study the genetic sequences of a species, anywhere in the world, using a computer. These billions of genetic sequences could be exploited for basic research purposes, for example to trace the ancestors of the plant in the evolutionary line, but also by foreign industries to create a new sequence, without the Latin American country being able to benefit from it. .

Indeed, the latest technological advances, particularly in terms of massive data management, artificial intelligence, and chemistry, make it possible to sort through the billions of nucleotides, modify sequences and combine them with others. “ CRISPR/Cas9 technology, commonly known as “genetic scissors”, makes it possible to create new sequences. Combined with artificial intelligence, we could obtain commercially interesting sequences, but this remains very hypothetical. “, explains Catherine Aubertin.

An economic and political issue

For researchers, the interest of databases is enormous: it is thanks to them that they were able to quickly sequence the coronavirus and develop vaccines. Some scientists fear that new standards in this area will restrict access to this self-service data, and therefore slow down their research.

But many countries rich in biodiversity, including some from the African continent, want COP15 to resolve this economic and scientific issue once and for all. Concretely, they demand that the income derived from genetic sequences from their territories contribute at least in part to their own development. Indeed, today, a company can develop a product derived from various genetic sequences without paying tax on their use, thanks to open access databases.

This phenomenon, which is biopiracy, existed even before digital genetic sequences, thanks to the use of samples collected without the consent of local populations. The example the best known is steviaused by the Guarani natives for centuries in South America, and which has allowed the development of a chemical sweetener, notably used by Coca-Cola.

Several solutions are therefore envisaged. One could be to create a fund which would systematically collect part of the money produced, and which would then be donated to the extent of each country’s participation in the databases. Another would be to charge for access to genetic sequences. But for that, it would be necessary to start now to systematically label the precise origin of the genes in order to be able to redirect the funds collected, which is not always the case. Some plants, for example, exist in several neighboring countries and their sequences do not specify the exact location.

The issue of genetic data from biodiversity is also a political means for the countries of the South to assert themselves on the international scene and to bring about a balance of power that is beneficial to them. “ Some negotiating countries no longer want to risk losing control over their resources (…) even if we do not yet know what concrete economic benefits will come out of these new methods of exploiting genetic sequences “, explains Catherine Aubertin. Negotiators close to the African delegation have indicated that it will be impossible to finalize a global agreement on biodiversity until a solution is found to share the benefits of digitized genetic sequences.

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Biodiversity: the issue of genetic data threatens the outcome of COP15

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