NGOs condemn Biopiracy by Swiss University

NGOs in Zimbabwe and Switzerland condemn the way by which the University of Lausanne gained access to genetic resources in Zimbabwe and the way the benefit sharing has been negotiated. They also reject the patent on antimicrobial diterpenes which Prof. Hostettmann of Lausanne University took out on these resources and which is based on traditional knowledge. This case is another example which illustrates that the ongoing bioprospecting in southern countries contradicts the rules defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). “While the Swiss government is supporting guidelines for Access and Benefit Sharing at the CBD, a Swiss University practises illegal bioprospecting in Zimbabweat the very same time”, says François Meienberg of the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration.

Neither the state of Zimbabwe, nor the traditional healers involved in the bioprospecting have been correctly informed or have given their prior informed consent for the search of genetic resources in Zimbabwe. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by Zimbabwe and Switzerland states that "Access to genetic resources shall be subject to prior informed consent of the contracting party providing such resources …". In Zimbabwe the mandate and the authority to allow access to genetic resources lies with the Ministry of Environment. But the Ministry never signed a contract with the Universitiy of Lausanne, nor is there any contract which shifts the mandate from the Ministry to the University of Zimbabwe, which helped the University of Lausanne to get access to the resources. “We have never given our consent to this deal”, states Prof. G. Chavunduka of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), which had provided a number of samples of their medicines to the University of Zimbabwe for analysis.
A patent taken out on illegally accessed genetic resources should be declared invalid. However, as patent offices do not consider the origin of patented materials, the current patent regime in fact supports biopiracy. NGOs also request further analysis of whether Professor Hofstettmann’s ‘invention’ actually fulfills the requirements for a patent (e.g. novelty), or if it is largely based on illegally acquired traditional knowledge. “In this case, the involved NGOs are willing to fight the patent at the US patent and trademark office” states Andrew Mushita of the Community Technology and Development Association (CTDA) in Zimbabwe.
A documentary telecast by Swiss television in June indicates that other bioprospecting projects of Prof. Hostettmann (e.g. the search for a natural “Viagra” medicine on behalf of the Swiss pharma giant Novartis) have also been carried out in violation of the CBD.   
The Swiss and Zimbabwean NGOs demand that in the given Case an Access and Benefit Sharing agreement is negotiated which fulfills the objectives of the Biodiversity Convention and which engages all the main Stakeholders in Zimbabwe. The NGOs also demand that the Contract between the University of Lausanne and Phytera (who received an option for an exclusive worldwide license) is cancelled and that the patent is withdrawn.