GENET archive


4-Patents: New biopiracy case from Southern Africa

genet-news mailing list

-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive.
        Now its secret is 'stolen' to make us thin
SOURCE: The Observer, UK, by Antony Barnett,6903,508162,00.html
DATE:   June 17, 2001

------------------ archive: ------------------

In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive. Now its secret is 'stolen' to 
make us thin

Pharmaceutical firms stand accused of once again plundering native lore to 
make fortunes from natural remedies, writes Antony Barnett

For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus to 
stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.

The Kung bushmen who live around the Kalahari desert in southern Africa 
used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and munch 
on it over a couple of days. According to tradition, they ate together so 
they brought back what they caught and did not eat while hunting.

Now the Hoodia, which grows to 6ft - taller than the bushmen themselves - 
is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has 
attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits 
developing countries through the international patent system.

In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused of failing to 
provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in 
Cambridgeshire, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived 
from an African cactus.

It emerged that the company had patented P57, the appetite-suppressing 
ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle.

Phytopharm's scientists boasted it would have none of the side-effects of 
many treatments because it was derived from a natural product. The 
discovery was immediately hailed by the press as a 'dieter's dream' and 
Phytopharm's share price rose as City traders expected rich returns from a 
drug which would revolutionise the 6bn market in slimming aids. Phytopharm 
acted quickly.

It sold the rights to license the drug for $21m to Pfizer, the US 
pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pill form 
within three years. Having made millions from Viagra, the impotence drug, 
Pfizer now believes it has in its laboratories a drug that is going to beat 
fat. But it appears that while the drug companies were busy seducing the 
media, their shareholders and financiers about the wonders of their new 
drug, they had forgotten to tell the bushmen, whose knowledge they had used 
and patented.

Phytopharm's excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used 
the Hoodia cactus were extinct. Richard Dixey, the firm's self-proclaimed 
Buddhist chief executive, told the Financial Times : 'We're doing what we 
can to pay back, but it's a really fraught problem... especially as the 
people who discovered the plant have disappeared.'

Yet this weekend leaders of the people Dixey believed had disappeared are 
having their annual gathering at a farm 45 miles north of Cape Town. One of 
the top items on the agenda is to plan their strategy against Phytopharm 
and Pfizer. They are angry, saying their ancient knowledge has been stolen, 
and are about to launch a challenge and demand compensation.

Roger Chennells is the lawyer for the tribal bushmen, who number 100,000 
across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. He argued their case in 
1999 when the bushmen won 100,000 acres of white-owned farmland on the edge 
of the Kalahari.

Speaking to The Observer, Chennells said: 'They are very concerned. It 
feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and cashed it in for a 
huge profit. The bushmen do not object to anybody using their knowledge to 
produce a medicine, but they would have liked the drug companies to have 
spoken to them first and come to an agreement.

'I believe there is grounds for a legal challenge, but there is certainly a 
strong moral case for the drug companies to pay proper compensation to 
those whose knowledge they have taken and now claim to own.'

Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner for ActionAid, the international development 
charity, said: 'This is a major case of bio-piracy. Corporations are 
scouring the globe looking to rip off traditional knowledge from some of 
poorest communities in the world. Consent or compensation is rarely given. 
The patent system needs urgent reform to protect the knowledge nurtured 
over generations by groups like the African bushmen.'

When presented with news of this weekend's tribal gathering and the 
bushmen's anger about what has happened, Dixey reacted with genuine 

He claims that one of the reasons he set up Phytopharm was precisely to 
help tribal people profit from their ancient medicinal knowledge of plants. 
He said: 'I honestly believed that these bushmen had died out and am sorry 
to hear they feel hard done by. I am delighted that they are still around 
and have a recognisable community. The ownership of medicinal plants is 
extremely complex, but I have always believed that this type of knowledge 
is the most valuable asset of indigenous tribes. Instead of weaving baskets 
and taking tourists around, royalty payments from medicines could transform 
their prospects.'

Dixey, who insisted that he would now be happy to enter into talks with the 
bushmen community, said that Phytopharm was approached with the deal by the 
South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which had 
been investigating the properties of the Hoodia cactus.

He claims it was the CSIR that told him the bushmen tribes who used the 
cactus no longer existed and assured him that agreements were in place to 
help local communities.

Dr Marthinus Horak, the man in charge of the CSIR project, defended the 
deal. He claimed there were only a few hundred bushmen left in South Africa 
itself, living in isolated areas, and were very hard to contact.

He said: 'We always intended to speak to the community at some stage, but 
we did not believe it would be appropriate to do so before the drug had 
passed on the clinical tests and been finally approved. We did not want to 
raise their expectations with promises that could not be met.' Horak said 
the CSIR was committed to sharing financial benefits and had a track record 
in dealing with local communities through a variety of benefit-sharing 

Yet critics - such as the South African campaigning group BioWatch - 
believe that these benefit-sharing agreements are nothing but a sham and 
mainly result in money being invested back into CSIR itself - which is half-
funded by the South African government.

Rachel Wynberg from Biowatch said: 'All we hear is words, but we see 
nothing on paper. They talk of benefit-sharing, but it seems more of a myth 
than reality and most of the money seems to end up back in the CSIR.

'The details of agreements are all confidential and we have no access to 
them. The Hoodia drug has the potential to be South Africa's first 
blockbuster drug and this should have all been sorted out before the patent 
was awarded and not after.'

Sandy Gall, the broadcaster and former ITN newsreader who next month is 
publishing a book on the bushmen of southern Africa, described the 
situation as 'disgraceful'. He said: 'These ancient people have been 
exploited for years and it is disgraceful that it is still happening.

'They have been displaced and dispersed, but for someone to claim they 
thought the bushmen no longer existed is either naive or deceitful.'

The harsh environments in which the Kung bushmen have lived for thousands 
of years have led them to become expert botanists. They can readily 
identify more than 300 different types of plant with different properties 
and campaigners believe that the row over the Hoodia patent is just the 
first of many such battles to come.

Tomorrow pressure groups will converge on a meeting of the World Trade 
Organisation in Geneva to protest against the system of patents which they 
claim helps drug corporations to exploit developing countries and prevents 
them from getting access to cheap drugs.


! phone from June 25 - July 7: +49-4431-3196 !

|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|               Kleine Wiese 6                |
|           D - 38116 Braunschweig            |
|                 Germany                     |
|                                             |
| phone: +49-531-5168746                      |
| fax:   +49-531-5168747                      |
| email:                    |