Advances in human genome research could widen North-South gap

by Tito Drago

Madrid, 12 Feb 2001 (IPS) -- While the advances in biogenetics reported Monday in Washington, Paris, London, Tokyo and Berlin constitute a major breakthrough, they will widen the gap in medical care between the industrialised North and developing South, researchers warn.

The two reports presented simultaneously describe the human genome, or the map of the roughly 30,000 to 35,000 genes of the human species.

The US-led public international effort headed by researcher Eric Lander of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research in Cambridge, Massachussets announced the findings of its research, which will be published in this week’s edition of the British scientific journal “Nature”.

A private US company Celera Genomics, headed by Craig Venter, also announced Monday the results of its own human genome study, to be published in the US journal “Science”.

The newfound genetic knowledge will pave the way for earlier diagnosis of disease, and for developing drugs and treatment plans that are tailored to individual genetic profiles.

But World Health Organisation (WHO) researcher Tikki Pang wondered out loud at the BioVision forum last week in the French city of Lyon whether the latest advances in genome research would help the developing world. Pang himself said he was afraid the answer was in the negative.

The enormous investment by Celera and the international public consortium - around $50 million each - stands in sharp contrast to the situation faced, for example, by the foundation in Colombia that has come up with a vaccine against malaria, one of the developing world’s biggest killers.

The Bogota-based foundation, whose fight against malaria is led by Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, is facing the possibility that it may have to give up its work on an even more effective vaccine because its research equipment was subjected to distraint by the Colombian branch of Spain’s Bilbao Vizcaya Bank due to an outstanding debt of less than $2 million.

Elkin Patarroyo refused to commercialise his vaccine against malaria, which he has been developing since the early 1990s, and instead donated the patent to the WHO on the condition that the vaccine be made available at cost.

While the first version of the vaccine began to be applied in the field, Patarroyo’s foundation continued its research to make it even more effective.

The huge profits piled up by the drug giants, especially the US transnational corporations that dominate the global market, starkly contrast with the position taken by Patarroyo.

Although Pang agreed it was possible that the mapping of the human genome would lead to the development of increasingly effective medications, he added that the new drugs would in all likelihood be patented and sold at prices that were unaffordable to those in greatest need.

What are needed to prevent and cure the three leading killers in the developing South - malaria, diarrhoea and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) - are mosquito netting, cheap rehydration therapies and condoms, none of which will be produced as a result of the new knowledge of the human genome. Nor will vaccines like the one being developed by Elkin Patarroyo.

The sequencing of the human genome poses another danger: that life and health insurance companies will increase the costs of their policies on the basis of an individual’s genetic risk factor.

Svante Pavo, with the Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, stated in “Nature” that the danger was real, and especially high in countries with health systems administered by the private sector. He underlined that the benefits of the scientific breakthrough would not be enjoyed equally by the entire population.

Furthermore, experts say most of the medical and pharmaceutical progress arising from the knowledge of the human genome will benefit older people - another area in which the North-South gap will be highlighted, given the fact that life expectancy is higher in the industrialised world than in developing nations.