TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Nov18/01)
16 November 2018
Third World Network

Dear friends and colleagues,

Pressure Mounts for a Solution on Benefit Sharing for Digital Sequence Information

As Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing meet in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt from 17-29 November 2018, the issue of ‘digital sequence information’ will be high on the agenda. There is an urgent need to create a benefit sharing solution for the use of DSI, otherwise the third objective of the CBD and that of the Nagoya Protocol are in jeopardy.

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Pressure Mounts for a Solution on Benefit Sharing for Digital Sequence Information

By Edward Hammond, Third World Network

With the rapid global expansion of large scale gene sequencing efforts like the recently launched Earth Biogenome Project, which aims to “sequence the genomes of all known species”, pressure is mounting on the Biodiversity Convention to create a benefit sharing solution for use of digital sequence information (DSI).  Parties in Sharm El-Sheikh will take the issue up in Working Group I on Sunday, November 18th.

Gene sequences in databases and other natural information are increasingly replacing companies’ need to access biological samples. Observers conclude that without systematic DSI benefit sharing, the situation is nothing less than an existential threat to the Convention.  If users of biodiversity, particularly commercial entities, access biodiversity as DSI, yet don’t share benefits, then the third objective of the Convention is not fulfilled, a situation that could eventually cause the entire agreement to collapse.

For Parties, the question isn’t if benefit sharing for DSI must be done, but how to do it. Delegates may differ on the degree to which DSI falls within the scope of the Nagoya Protocol and the Convention, but that discussion may not be as central as it initially appears, because use of DSI is utilization of genetic resources and, therefore, benefit sharing is obligatory under the Nagoya Protocol.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of DSI databases, such as Genbank (US), the European Nucleotide Archive, and Japan’s DNA Data Bank take absolutely no measures to ensure benefit sharing. These databases and their backers claim that “open access” to DSI must be paramount.

This self-interested Northern vision of “open access” posits that sequences must be given to companies (and others) without obligations, and that they may commercially capitalize on DSI, without benefit sharing.  Yet this brand of “open access” is clearly flawed, as in order to be consistent with the CBD and Nagoya Protocol, open access cannot mean that DSI is distributed with “no strings attached”. As use of DSI is utilization of genetic resources under the Nagoya Protocol, benefit sharing is obligatory.

The challenge then, in Sharm El-Sheikh, is to craft an urgently needed agreement allowing DSI to be publicly available for scientific work, but also requiring DSI users to commit to share benefits.  The issue is especially important for biodiverse developing countries, whose species are sequenced and placed in unregulated databases controlled by wealthy countries … countries that, to date, do not expressly acknowledge the obligation to equitably share benefits.

Contemplating solutions, interested groups are studying data access and use agreements, in some ways similar to software licenses, to which database users must agree before accessing sequences. Others are discussing multilateral benefit sharing possibilities, an approach supported by many developing countries at SBSTTA in July 2018.

SBSTTA’s consideration of DSI stalled, however, when small advances in the contact group fell apart at the Working Group’s final meeting.  European resistance to seriously discuss DSI benefit sharing was to blame for SBSTTA’s missed opportunities. Some fear that Europe will arrive in Sharm El-Sheikh again seeking to avoid resolution by saying it is “too early” and demanding more technical considerations of an issue that, in reality, is preeminently political.

The reasons for Europe’s position are clear. Delay strongly favors the economic interests of Northern countries, because they hope that DSI databases now being hurriedly built in the absence of a solution will not have to share benefits in the future, in much the same way that ex-situ biodiversity collections, such as colonial botanical gardens, have continued to mostly escape benefit sharing obligations despite more than 25 years of the CBD.

At SBSTTA, developing countries proposed that COP create an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) to negotiate a DSI solution for adoption at COP 15 in Beijing.  If progress is not made quickly, some developing countries propose to use new clauses in bilateral bioprospecting agreements to restrict sequencing of samples, a move that will surely get the scientific community’s attention if it is broadly implemented.