Who owns the genes of the open sea? Tension over the genetic resources of the high seas

More than a month after the United Nations talks in New York City, the world’s nations have yet to finalize a treaty that would create massive marine protected areas and tougher rules on industrial activity in the high seas — the two-thirds of the world’s oceans that lie beyond any country’s territorial waters. are located — applies.

The negotiations were stopped in the final hours; In large part because of a problem that has long dogged conversations about the oceans: how to divide the profits from commercial uses of the high seas’ genetic resources.

Ocean organisms, both plants and animals, form the basis of many successful medicines; These include remdesivir, the first approved treatment for Covid, and Halaven, a blockbuster anti-cancer drug derived from a Japanese marine sponge that sells for more than $300 million a year.

The genetic material of open sea organisms and the digital data related to their genetic sequencing can be used to develop new products with billions of dollars in revenue. But who owns these resources, which theoretically belong to the whole world, and who benefits from their use?

The details of the failure of UN negotiations to answer these questions can provide good insight into whether there is hope for the protection and management of open waters.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries have the right to harvest and benefit from fisheries in international waters. But they should share the profits from the extraction of minerals from the international waters. UNCLOS considers these resources as the “common heritage” of all peoples.

However, there is no binding agreement on the sharing of marine genetic resources in international waters or on the seabed. Negotiations between 168 countries in the United Nations were supposed to solve this problem with a proposal on open waters.

Remdesivir and Halavon, the approved drugs for Covid and HIV obtained from the genetic resources of the national seas, show the high potential of the genetic resources of the open sea in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

This effort is a major part of a global project in which 30% of the Earth’s oceans will be protected by 2030; “30 to 30” project. Many scientists say achieving this goal is necessary to maintain a healthy ocean, stop the destruction of marine biodiversity and prevent the collapse of the world’s fishing industry.

Lance Morgan, director of the non-profit Marine Conservation Institute, says, “Many countries have committed to 30-30, but without a high seas treaty, nothing can be done.”

Since 1950, researchers have discovered approximately 34,000 marine compounds with potential commercial value for a wide range of applications. An antifreeze protein from a cold-water fish has improved the texture of ice creams, and an enzyme extracted from a microbe in the mid-Atlantic ridge has been used to develop biofuels.

So far, companies have successfully developed more than a dozen drugs from marine organisms in national waters. These drugs include the previously mentioned remdesivir and Halaven, azidothymidine (AZT), the first approved treatment for HIV, and Yondelis, a drug to treat ovarian cancer.

Scientists in countries with advanced research programs are currently focusing on the unknown genomes of open sea organisms to explore new avenues for the marine biotechnology industry; An industry that is expected to reach a value of 6.4 billion dollars by 2025.

The recent negotiations sought to find a solution for the High Seas Agreement inspired by the Nagoya Protocol, which is part of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This protocol controls the use of genetic resources on land and coastal waters. According to this protocol, the commercialization of biodiversity by countries or companies is allowed, but the rights of the owners of these resources, such as local people, must be compensated.

The dispute over how to divide the profits from the use of the genetic resources of the open sea has been the main obstacle to the formation of a binding treaty in the recent negotiations of the United Nations.

The Nagoya Protocol has so far led to a successful agreement in 2019 under which the South African red tea industry is required to pay 1.5 percent of the price of its raw products as a tax to a local coalition of Khoi and San communities. ) to pay This year’s tax amount for the red tea industry was approximately $715,000.

There is no such law for the high seas.

Achieving a law is difficult because marine genetic resources in international waters have no owner—or indeed everyone. Historically, UN members such as the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States, and Japan, which have the technology, money, and ability to explore deep waters for new products, have claimed patent rights and exclusive profits from marine genetic resources.

Developing nations, including a group of African nations, have argued that profits, data and other benefits from marine genetic resources should be shared among all nations.

“It’s a whole new industry, a huge investment opportunity that developing countries often feel they’re missing out on,” says Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas advisor at the nonprofit International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Part of their claim is because they want to be respected, and another part is because they want to share in this research and also in the profits.

Prospects for a sea treaty improved in the second week, when developed nations agreed — for the first time in 20 years of negotiations — to share the monetary gains from the commercialization of marine genetic resources. According to Marcel Jaspars, a marine biotechnologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and an independent consultant on the negotiations, this was a “big compromise”.

But the negotiations ended with the rejection of several proposed money distribution systems. One proposal was a royalty-based program under which companies would deposit a percentage of the sales value of marine genetic resources into a fund. This money was used for various purposes; including the education of scientists, the transfer of technologies and the achievement of conservation goals such as establishing marine protected areas.

Developed countries saw this as too punitive and financially burdensome because the proposal required a tracking system to monitor how related industries (such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics) accessed and profited from ocean genomes.

Digital sequencing information or DSI is one of the non-physical genetic resources of the open sea. So far, no UN resource treaty has covered this data. The complexity of these data and the difficulty of tracking them have been one of the obstacles to reaching an agreement.

One of the drawbacks of the Nagoya Protocol is that it is too strict: by requiring scientists to obtain permission to access and collect biological samples, foreign scientists in some countries such as Colombia and Sri Lanka have been denied basic research. Current negotiations refuse to apply a similar law to the high seas.

Another proposed option would require UN member states to put money into a fund in advance. Governments contribute to this fund in proportion to the scale of their country’s marine biotechnology industry.

But according to Henry Novion, an independent consultant and member of the Brazilian delegation, developing countries found the initial proposed figures in New York to be grossly inadequate.

According to Jespers, a fund of about $100 million a year from Janet’s national contributors would be a reasonable proposition. A report from the IUCN proposed a one-time fund of $500 million to start ocean conservation, to which future revenues such as royalties or user fees for data would be added.

Complicating the negotiations is the fact that genetic resources include not only physical samples but also genetic sequencing data uploaded to repositories such as GenBank. This data can be downloaded in the laboratory and used in new compounds to be used to develop a new product.

Eventually, this Digital Sequence Information (DSI) will be all that a company will need to build a mass-produced product. For example, Kahalalide F—a compound isolated from a sea snail and tested for the treatment of cancer and psoriasis—was synthesized from DSI. When the Spanish company PharmaMar licensed it to Medimetriks (an American company testing it for treating psoriasis), all Medimetriks needed was the sequencing data (actually computer code).

“Over time, the focus has shifted from collecting zebrafish or starfish to collecting a small sample of one thing, and finally to collecting genetic sequencing data,” says Robert Blasiak, a marine governance researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Pharmaceutical and chemical companies can develop new products using only genetic sequencing data. As a result, there is no need to physically harvest animals, plants and microorganisms from the open sea. This makes the commercial potential of DSI unlimited, as they can be easily downloaded as a single file. But at the same time, their legislation is more difficult for this reason.

Developing products from DSI has one big advantage: the approach does not require the collection of animals, plants, and oceanic microorganisms, and its commercial potential is almost unlimited, since a gene sequence can be sold many times online. “DSI is now the most valuable resource for the commercialization of marine genetic resources,” says Yerdeh.

There are currently no regulations for DSI; Even in the Nagoya protocol that only covers physical samples. UN members are wary of including DSI in any money-sharing program for the high seas, as it is almost impossible to trace the origin of such information once it is synthesized into a product. Tracking becomes more difficult when a product uses genes from different organisms.

For example, researchers from BASF chemical production group in Germany have decoded the genetic sequence related to the production of omega-3 fatty acids in a marine microbe and spliced ​​this sequence into the seed of the rapeseed plant to produce omega-3-rich rapeseed oil for human consumption. .

Although the Nagoya Protocol does not include DSI, four countries—Brazil, India, Malawi, and South Africa—have formal provisions for it. The Brazilian system focuses on the commitment of companies and grants them an ethical biobusiness certification to report the use of genetic resources. In return, companies contribute 1 percent of their revenue to a fund.

In theory, a similar system could be applied to the high seas; Probably as a tax on marine products by countries. “In the Brazilian system, it doesn’t matter if you get your sample from Kew Gardens,” says Novion [یک باغ گیاه‌شناسی در انگلیس] or downloaded it from a server. Both are the same.”

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