Until now, most of the genetic information that researchers have decoded has been made available by them via publicly accessible digital sequence information (DSI) databases. This genetic information is useful for conducting comparative analyses and is vital for biodiversity research, as well as for research on natural products and active substances. Pharmaceutical companies and other businesses use these freely available gene sequences to identify active substances, register patents, develop new products and generate profits. However, they are under no obligation to remunerate the data producers or the country of origin of this genetic material – a fact which has outraged an army of critics worldwide in recent years.
As a result of their protests, a debate is currently under way about the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol and how the economic benefits arising from the use of this data can be shared in a fair and equitable manner at the international level. Restrictions on access and payment of fees are options being discussed.
The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina is opposed to restrictions on access. According to a statement released by the Academy, to enable free research worldwide, DSI databases must continue to be openly accessible. The coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has shown that the exchange of sequence information, in this case of novel pathogens, contributes significantly to scientific progress. In addition, DSI databases are a key tool for biodiversity conservation because, for example, changes in ecosystems can be tracked with their assistance.
The Academy’s experts are in favour of equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological diversity; however, this must be done in a way which does not jeopardize either biodiversity conservation or Open Science. The situation is also complicated by the fact that, to date, information on the geographical origin of the data is missing for almost half of all digital sequence information. The scientific community should therefore develop solutions to make this information traceable in the databases in the future.
Ideas on how to resolve this dilemma have been developed by an Open-Ended Working Group under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The framework developed by the Working Group will be discussed at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, in October 2021.