by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 3 July 2000 -- The Philippines government has decided to clamp down on biopiracy and the 'illegal collection of biodiversity', according to a press release from MASIPAG, a Philippine non-governmental group specialising in environmental and agricultural biodiversity issues.

A “no permit, no collection” policy has been enforced by the Environment  Secretary Antonio Cerilles, instructing environment officers to “arrest those caught without the required permits even if they are accompanied by government officials.”

Cerilles also ordered a strict check on the entry and exit of all visitors in all protected areas, particularly in classified, strictly protected zones.”We have already lost some of our resources to biopirates,” he said.

“At least one tree with cancer-curing potential, four native vegetables, one snail which produces the most effective pain killer, an antibiotic soil fungus, one fruit tree and several rice varieties, have been stolen, and are now owned by foreign pharmaceutical firms,” said Cerilles.

Ranking fifth among the world’s biological “hotspots,” the Philippines, along with Brazil, is considered as one of the world’s ecological frontiers. There are an estimated 9,000 species of vascular flora, a third of which is considered endemic.

Through biopiracy, “these firms and foreign governments secretly work with scientists within victim nations,” said the Environment Secretary.

“They patent and map chromosomes of genetic resources without informing, consulting and duly compensating the sources,” he said.

Conducting a 10-year bioprospecting activity since 1990, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and the Philippine National Museum, have already collected over 100,000 specimens in the most interesting and endangered areas of the country.

Local bio-specimens already patented abroad include the amplaya (Mamantia mordica), and talong (Solanum melongena) which are believed to have potential in curing thrombosis (blood clotting) and the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

The Philippine yew (Taxus matrana), reported to have great potential in treating cancer, was uprooted from a national park in Mount Pulag, Benguet. Its patenting was “made possible” by researchers from the University of Massachusetts.

But probably the most sensational is the discovery of a toxin called SNX III from the Philippine snail (Conus magnus). It is now owned by Neurex Inc., a US transnational pharmaceutical firm, reportedly with the help of scientists from the University of the Philippines - Marine Science Institute and the University of Utah.

SNX is a painkiller and is said to be 1,000 times more effective than morphine. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Neurex already spent $80 million in preparing to launch the new painkiller.

Warner Lambert, one of the world’s major international pharmaceutical companies—which has sales of almost $6 billion—has reportedly entered into a marketing deal with Neurex to sell the drug.

Microbial biopiracy is not new in the Philippines.

In 1949, Filipino scientist Dr. Abelardo Aguilar sent his employer, Eli Lilly Co., samples of an antibiotic isolated from a soil that Aguilar collected in his home province of Iloilo, in central Philippines.

Three years later, Eli Lilly sent a congratulatory letter to Aguilar promising to name the antibiotic “Ilosone” in honor of Iloilo province where the soil was originally collected.

It was the first successful macrolide antibiotic introduced in the US in 1952. Its broad antimicrobial spectrum gave alternatives to patients showing allergic reactions to penicillin at that time.

The drug erythromycin, sold under the brand name Ilosone, has earned Eli Lilly billions of dollars, but neither Aguilar nor the Philippine government received any royalty.

In 1993, Aguilar died after spending 40 years to be recognized and rewarded, but to no avail.

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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