Pharmaceutical Giant Shares the Wealth

This is part of a series of essays on bioprospecting and biopiracy. The other essays are: “Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?“; “High-Tech Piracy“; “Mapping the Territory“; “Transnationals With a Conscience“; and “Biodiversity Resources“.

Given biodiversity’s growing value to industry and its diminishing supply as a result of the destruction of rainforests around the world, it is not surprising that countries rich in biodiversity would seek to profit from it. But what is unique about the current initiatives is that they are likely to lead to a situation in which the use of genetic resources contributes to the conservation of those resources, to the development needs of the source country, and to higher profits for industry.

The best example of this is the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) in Costa Rica, which in September 1991 announced a groundbreaking agreement with the U.S.-based pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. Under this contract, INBio will provide Merck’s drug-screening program with chemical extracts from wild plants, insects, and microorganisms. In return, Merck will provide INBio with a two-year research and sampling budget of $1.14 million, royalties on any commercial products that result, and technical assistance and training to help establish drug research in Costa Rica. INBio agreed to contribute 10 percent of the up-front payment from Merck and 50 percent of any royalties to Costa Rica’s National Park Fund to help conserve national parks.

What sets INBio apart is that its primary mission is conservation; bioprospecting is merely one means to that end. With its high percentage of conserved wild land, highly educated citizenry, relatively small indigenous population, small size, and considerable scientific capability, Costa Rica offers a good climate for testing innovative ways to manage biodiversity. Although INBio is a product of Costa Rica’s particular biological, political, and social environment, its pioneering work is relevant throughout the tropics; other countries can learn a great deal that will help them manage their own biodiversity.

Costa Rica is benefiting from its relationship with INBio in two ways, in addition to conservation. First, this agreement results in substantial transfer of technology to Costa Rica. Costa Rican scientists are being trained to discover and extract drugs, and INBio is already beginning to assess some of the drugs for their usefulness against local diseases. Second, Costa Rica stands to receive substantially greater sums from any commercial discovery than has historically been the case.

Reprinted from Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1993-94. (Note: publication is inactive see: National Academy of the Sciences here.)

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