By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
There's a cloud on the health horizon no bigger than a fist. Right now, that cloud is just a jumble of acronyms. But soon, those acronyms could darken the human future, as fewer life-saving drugs are created -- and at a higher cost.
Americans aren't always interested in foreign news, but we have learned that international organizations -- summed up in acronyms such as "UN," and "NATO," and "OPEC" -- can have great impact on our lives. And newer entities, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court, are becoming known by their initials. So maybe, too, with "CBD" and "LMMC." A little background: last week in Bangkok, Thailand, a group with a comically bureaucratic name met for a purpose that's no laughing matter. The Third Meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group on Asset and Benefit Sharing of the Convention on Biodiversity wrangled over the fate of the world's collective medicine chest.
Attending that meeting was a 17-nation acronym armada, the Like-Minded Group of Mega-Diverse Countries (LMMC), including Brazil and India, who encompass two-thirds of the world's species of flora and fauna. This group pushed for a radical change in the way medicines are developed.
These LMMC countries, spearheaded by international Green outfits with a distinctly anti-corporate bias, wish to rewrite the terms under which pharmaceutical companies "bioprospect" around the world. Bioprospecting is what it sounds like: Scientists go exploring, taking samples, hoping to find the next Taxol. Taxol, the anti-breast cancer drug, had its origins in the Pacific yew tree, although it took Bristol-Myers two decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to turn mere bark into a proven life-saver.
Since all women benefit from Taxol, one might think countries would be eager to contribute their biota to the global commonweal. After all, no bakery receives royalties for penicillin, even though that lifesaver was first observed as mold growing on a piece of bread.
But since 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has governed such bioprospecting, setting forth the rules by which it is conducted and countries are compensated. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed to Third World countries. At the same time, a continuing stream of new drugs has flowed to patients.
But now the LMMCs want to change the deal by dramatically raising the cost of bioprospecting. That's their sovereign right as nations, but everyone in the world should know that if the LMMCs succeed in their campaign, new drugs will be fewer, and they will cost more.
Which is to say that though the Battle of Bangkok received little attention, the stakes were huge. In the words of Alan Oxley, Australia's former trade ambassador, the proposed new rules could "chill investment and stop growth in biotechnology industries in countries which adopt such laws." So why crank up costs and red tape? Oxley, a Bangkok eyewitness, blames leftist ideologues, embedded throughout the planetary acronym-ocracy, who seek to bash corporations at every opportunity, even if that means bashing the goose that lays the golden eggs of both wealth and health.
Recently we learned that a mutated AIDS "superbug" is on the loose. Now we learn that if the avian flu virus were to jump from birds to humans, it could kill as many as 100 million people, according to the World Health Organization. In other words, the battle against infectious disease is far from won, let alone the battle against scourges such as cancer.
Yet in addition to health onslaughts, the political onslaughts keep coming, too. Three decades ago, Third World radicals pushed for a New International Economic Order. That acronym, NIEO, was shorthand for a redistribution of the world's wealth.
Fortunately, as a package, NIEO was a nonstarter. But portions of NIEO survive, in small, deadly pieces, including LMMC. Such a letter-pile might be a pain to keep in mind, but as with any plague, it's deadly to ignore the consequences.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service