Negotiators hope to seal within days a treaty to share genetic resources between countries and companies, a step that could unlock billions of dollars for developing nations from drug, agri-resources and cosmetics firms.
The access and benefit-sharing protocol aims to create a legal framework that would give nations much better control over their resources from trees to fungi and from fish to frogs that can lead to cures for cancer or new crops more resistant to climate change.
Following are some details about the pact, which is a central focus of major Oct 18-29 U.N. talks in Japan on saving nature.
Fair sharing of genetic resources is a key goal of the Convention on Biological Diversity that went into force in 1993.
But voluntary measures weren't adopted until 2002 and in 2006 a target was set to agree on a legally binding treaty by 2010. That deadline is the current meeting in the Japanese city of Nagoya that is due to end on Friday. The issue is complex and controversial, with some pharmaceutical firms fearing higher costs to develop new drugs and a tougher time to get patents.
WHAT ARE GENETIC RESOURCES?
Under the Convention, genetic material refers to anything from plant, animals, microbes that can be inherited, or passed on, while genetic resources is any genetic material of actual or potential value. Such resources are each nation's sovereign right.
MAIN STICKING POINTS
There are several, including:
* SCOPE. Negotiators haven't resolved whether benefits from genetic resources and traditional knowledge would apply after the new protocol is ratified, or before the 1993 start of the Convention.
Some developing nations want it to take into account benefits acquired historically. For example, if a drug acquired from a tropical plant decades ago is still in use, there should be some way to try to earn a benefit from that, even if it's a moral obligation. Or, if there is a new use for an existing genetic resource, there should be a legal obligation to compensate the originating country.
A major problem is the large amount of material stored in universities, museums and botanical gardens and how that should be treated if new cures for diseases are derived from these.
* DERIVATIVES. These are biochemical compounds that directly result from genes, such as enzymes that can be used in the pharmaceutical industry.
Some drug companies fear covering this area will mean too much regulation, while developing nations see it as a loophole that needs to be closed if, for example, an enzyme is patented even when the actual gene isn't.
* COMPLIANCE. Or how to ensure companies abide by the rules, how to resolve disputes and which jurisdictions would apply.
This also applies to monitoring and reporting the use of resources, obtaining full consent to use the materials, one or more checkpoints, the issuing of internationally recognized certificates and the creation of a clearing house.
A key issue is how this protocol could affect intellectual property rights. Developing countries want to make sure that patents are not given out for genetic resources that they feel belongs to them.
* AREAS BEYOND NATIONAL JURISDICTION. How to cover resources in seas outside national boundaries and how to collect money from efforts to exploit such resources?
* PATHOGENS. It is still unclear what extent the protocol would apply when people, as well as animals and plants, are threatened by a new disease that requires rapid development of a vaccine.
For example, how would this apply firstly to the sharing of a new strain of the bird flu virus if it mutates and triggers a pandemic, and secondly to the fair sharing of developed vaccines, as well as part of the financial benefits, with the country that provided the pathogen?
(Sources: Convention on Biological Diversity, IUCN)
(Writing by David Fogarty; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)