Is Nothing Sacred?

The goals of the
Human Genome
Diversity Project
(HGDP) sound laudable: By taking DNA samples
from the world’s indigenous peoples, scientists will be able to
document the amazing diversity — and interconnectedness — of
human beings. Plus, any unique genes discovered — such as the
heart-attack-resistant genes that were found in the residents of an
isolated Italian community — could help fight disease.

But HGDP critics fear that the massive multinational project,
which is underway in several countries, is at the least misguided
and at worst, dangerous. The Rural
Advancement Foundation International
(RAFI) calls the venture
‘biopiracy,’ likening it to widescale plundering by drug companies
of medicinal plants and healing lore from indigenous communities,
who see none of the profits from the quickly patented plants or
resultant drugs. In RAFI’s May/June 1995 communique, the group
notes that scientists and their corporate partners are already
pursuing gene patents in a race within the ‘genomic industry’ to
claim and commercialize genetic material. For example, a California
genomics company hopes to patent an asthma gene from samples
collected from the people of Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island near
Brazil where asthma rates are high. So far, the benefits doled out
to residents include a machine that tells them if they’ve got
asthma.

RAFI also worries that the projected $30 million project will
divert foreign aid funds that could be better used for critical
health concerns such as access to clean water, food, and
vaccinations. Worse, knowledge of a peoples’ unique genes could be
used to develop equally unique biological weapons.

RAFI wants assurances that indigenous peoples are fully informed
and participate in any economic or health benefits resulting in the
research done on their bodies. In
HGDP’s
Frequently Asked Questions
, project proponents say they’ll ‘try
to guarantee’ that ‘some reasonable financial benefits would flow
back to the sampled population.’ As for whether their funds could
be better used, HGDP predicts that there’s ‘no reason to believe’
that money would go to alleviate poverty or ill health anyway.

RAFI and other groups also have ethical concerns chief among
them the question of whether or not human material should be
patented. In May, notes Religion Watch (July 1995), a
coalition of US religious leaders condemned the patenting of human
and animal genes as a violation of the sanctity of life.

In a related controversy, two Montana Indian tribes have stopped
DNA analysis of ancient hairs they consider sacred. In The
Sciences
(May/June 1995), researchers protest that the hairs
they found in diggings should not be returned due to legislation
mandating the repatriation of Indian remains. Hair is shed at the
rate of 200 strands per day, they note, and its analysis could shed
light on the tribes’ heritage. ‘American social policy,’ they
argue, ‘is founded on the premise that the country’s history and
its prehistory are the common heritage of all its citizens.’

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