Quassia Amara
Quassia Amara
Martine Valo

PARIS — One of France's state institutions is under fire for what critics call a textbook example of "biopiracy," an issue that is also at the heart of a new bill the French Senate approved just last month.

Last year, the country's Research Development Institute (IRD) earned a patent on a molecule extracted from the leaves of a small tropical tree, the Quassia Amara, known in Latin America for its insecticidal and medicinal properties. IRD researchers isolated a specific molecule, Simalikalactone E (SkE), that they intend to use for malaria medicines.

The problem, according to the Fondation France Liberté-Danielle Mitterrand, a watchdog group that has advocated against biopiracy for years, is that the IRD didn't come up with the idea alone.

Before extracting the molecule, the IRD first questioned Creole people in French Guiana and members of the Kali'na and Palikur indigenous groups, natives of the northern coastal areas of South America, about their traditional medicines. But it never sought their consent to develop future medications, nor did it involve them in the SkE discovery process, Fondation France Liberté-Danielle Mitterrand alleges.

"This is an example of flagrant injustice towards the indigenous peoples of French Guiana," says Emmanuel Poilane, the group's director.

The foundation is challenging the European Patent Office's decision to grant the IRD a patent in this case. "We argue that as regards SkE, the supposed invention is not new because researchers simply reproduced knowledge passed down from generation to generation," says Poilane.

The case has also drawn the ire of Rodolphe Alexandre, French Guiana's highest ranking official. "The misuse of people's traditional knowledge without their consent and the total lack of return to the community cannot be tolerated," he said. Alexandre said he learned "with astonishment" about the filing of a patent on a "typical sort of local traditional medicine," and described the IRD researchers as having a "total lack of ethics."

For the IRD, which has approximately 2,000 employees (including 800 researchers) and has worked for more than 60 years in Africa, the Mediterranean, Latin America and Asia, the accusations are a tough blow. "It gives us a bad reputation," says John Paul Moatti, the institute's head.

Moatti says the controversy impedes the IRD's ability to do research, and argues that researchers are in a race against time to develop new treatments before mosquitos develop resistance to existing ones. "To move forward, we have no choice but to file patents," he says.

France, in the meantime, is preparing to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement that looks to foster a more equitable distribution of the benefits derived from genetic resources. France originally signed the accord in 2011. But is it really ready to adhere to the new rules?

Moatti promises to "of course follow the law as soon as it is passed." Not everyone is convinced. Thomas Burelli, a doctor of law at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, says French public researchers tend to forget all about shared knowledge once it enters their labs. As such, they've never really demonstrated a willingness to commit to the Nagoya Protocol, he claims.

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