In times of swine flu; protecting the rights of developing countries over genetic resources

How do we ensure that genetic material for vaccines and viruses, which could help fight the current threat of Mexican swine flu, are transferred and shared effectively?  The material used to develop a vaccine could be transferred by using a Standard Material Transfer Agreement (“SMTA”) of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the “International Treaty”) – despite the material being used neither for food nor for animal feed.
However, many developed nations, including the United States (which incidentally is not party to the International Treaty) have objected to the use of the SMTA claiming that it’s broad provisions lead to unacceptable delays during times when a serious health threat is posed.  This has meant that a considerable amount of material has been distributed without the use of an SMTA. 

Developing countries fear their natural resources may be used to create a vaccine, but then the benefits will not be shared with them.  Or, an additional risk could be that materials given to the World Health Organization (“WHO”) with the intent to prevent a pandemic could be transferred to private companies for the manufacture of vaccines and then perhaps used for different purposes. 

Despite objections being made by some countries regarding the use of the SMTA in the sharing of viruses, the WHO Secretariat is already exploring this possibility, and is considering whether there are any lessons to learn from the use of an SMTA in access and sharing of benefits within the multilateral system of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture created by the International Treaty.

The question is: despite these specific reasons for not wanting to use the SMTA, is it not true that something should anyway be done to the language of the document as it is too broad?

The original blog post was written by Francesca Re Manning with contributions from Peter Munyi.  Both Francesca and Peter are consultants to CAS-IP.

6 responses to “In times of swine flu; protecting the rights of developing countries over genetic resources

  1. Guat Hong Teh

    I find the reference by the World Health Organisation to the Standard Material Transfer Agreement used by the ITPGRFA highly interesting. For those who are keen to find out more, here is the link to their version of the SMTA (see page 18 onwards):

  2. Does anybody else finding this discussion rather absurd? Pandemic flu could result in tens or hundreds of millions of fatalities and we appear to be worrying about whether materials ends up in the hands of private companies who will produce a vaccine. Isn’t that exactly what needs to happen if we have any chance of combating this looming disaster! Who else but private companies will be able to produce and distribute ‘flu vaccine in a timely manner? Isn’t the production of a vaccine and access to the vaccine benefit enough to the unfortunate country to be hit first (incidentally who knows where the strain used to produce a vaccine will be first isolated – it may be in a developed country)? Exactly what “right of a developing country” is being protected by not allowing access to ‘flu strains? Let us find ways to allow free and open access to ensure rapid production of preventative measures.

  3. Pingback: CORRECTION & addition to the post “in times of swine flu” «

  4. (In response to the comment from Keith, June 10th)

    Thanks for your comment — it stimulated an interesting debate here in the office! I am at the moment pulling together a separate post on the subject. For now I wanted to share a comment from my colleague Guat Hong Teh who is a legal specialist on our team. She said:

    “This view is not uncommon. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. However, the situation is just not as simple as described. Although my opinion is that the world community must come together to combat this pandemic (and other diseases) by sharing materials and resources, it’s not as easy as we all hope/think. “Health for all” entails many challenges, just like “food for all”. For developing countries, particularly, issues of access and affordability are critical. The fear of these developing countries is not that a vaccine will be produced by pharmaceutical companies but rather the issue of whether when such vaccines are developed they would be available in quantities and at a price that their governments would be able to afford. In my mind, this is the type of “benefit-sharing” that developing countries are truly after.”

    I will update again here once I have posted a more comprehensive entry on the blog dealing with this issue.

  5. Interesting stuff. Did you hear that there’s a new strain which is resistant to the anti-flu drugs? Tamiflu etc? Found a really good website for tracking it’s progress, seems to be updated every hour or so…

  6. Pingback: The long road to Access and Benefit Sharing « the CAS-IP blog

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