Montreal’s Convention on Biodiversity Conference Could Determine our Response to Future Pathogens
Colorized electron microscope photograph of SARS-CoV-2 (yellow) heavily infecting a dying cell (blue).

This month, world leaders gathered in Montreal for a major UN conference on biodiversity, aiming to reach an agreement on how to stop species loss. The Fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – COP15 for short–  has drawn tens of thousands of people. Delayed several times, it is the first live biodiversity summit since Covid-19 swept the world.

 The timing isn’t going unnoticed. Pathogens like Covid-19 might not come to mind when contemplating biodiversity losses. But these tiny organisms are a big topic of conversation at COP15, especially as the focus of negotiations on pathogen sharing have stretched to digital sequence information (DSI) on genetic resources as well.

That’s because decisions made at the conference — especially ones regarding how we share genetic resources, such as information about pathogens — could alter our ability to swiftly respond to the next pandemic.

Why sharing pathogens matters 

Knowing the genetic code of a virus is critical to the rapid development of effective vaccine candidates.

Pathogens are viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms that can cause disease — like SARS-CoV-2, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, three years ago and has since killed at least 6.5 million people.

That death toll could have been much worse if it weren’t for some crucial early decisions. In January 2020, Chinese scientists sequenced the Covid-19 genome and rapidly uploaded the information to a shared global database. That allowed scientists, academic researchers, and pharmaceutical companies worldwide — in low- and high-income countries alike — to begin work on vaccines and treatments.

Thanks to those Chinese scientists’ quick actions, phase one clinical trials for mRNA vaccines began just 66 days after the sequence was published. Altogether, it took less than a year — 326 days — to begin rolling vaccines out. Those shots prevented nearly 20 million deaths in the first year they were available.

Thousands of other scientists have since shared Covid-19 genetic information on the open-source hub known as GISAID. That has enabled us to “track new variants like Omicron and this virus’ evolution in real time,” according to World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

To date, researchers have submitted more than 13.6 million sequences of the pathogen to GISAID. Canadian researchers alone have submitted more than 460,000, representing nearly 11% of all Covid-19 cases here — one of the highest rates of information sharing in the world.

But imagine if scientists had chosen not to share genetic information about the coronavirus. It’s safe to say we’d still be in the thick of a global pandemic.

Why envision such a dystopian scenario? Because it’s happened before.

Why pathogens should be excluded from the Nagoya Protocol 

MERS coronavirus. During an outbreak of that deadly virrus 10 years ago, Saudi Arabia refused to share disease data with a laboratory abroad.

The problem stems from different interpretations of global agreements on the sharing of a country’s genetic resources — any plant, animal, or microbe that could be useful to humans, such as a nutritious seed or a flower with medicinal properties. Those agreements include, in particular, the Convention on Biodiversity’s provisions on access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources, and, as part of that, the Nagoya Protocol.

The Nagoya Protocol has the laudable goal of encouraging biodiversity-rich nations to share useful resources derived from their flora and fauna, while ensuring that they’re properly compensated. But if this is applied to viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms that can cause disease (aka pathogens) this could hinder, or even prevent, the global collaboration required to find new treatments or vaccines.

Pathogens aren’t explicitly excluded from the scope of the Nagoya Protocol. Today, more and more countries are moving toward enacting the Nagoya Protocol in national legislation, interpreting it in a way that requires sharing of pathogen samples and their information to be subject to negotiation between two parties. Some governments have claimed information about those organisms as their exclusive property.

For example, during an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome 10 years ago, Saudi Arabia refused to share disease data with a lab abroad. Similarly, Vietnam and Indonesia have refused to share flu information in the past. A lack of data sharing also exacerbated the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping governments from using data on pathogens as a bargaining chip to extract financial or political concessions from abroad. Claims that pathogens are protected property could even dissuade scientists from collaborating for fear of running afoul of their own governments.

Pathogens cannot be treated in the same way as other genetic resources – delays in accessing pathogens in pre-pandemic and pandemic situations can have devastating effects on human lives as well as society at large. Ensuring immediate and unhindered pathogen sharing, through a public health exemption to access and benefit rules, is critical for the future of public health.

In short, while scientists and their governments did the right thing during COVID-19, we can’t assume this best-case scenario when the next novel disease comes along.

COP-15 is a critical moment 

That is why the timing of COP15 is particularly important.  

At this year’s COP, negotiations are going on over a proposal to explicitly include digital sequence information into the provisions of the CBD’s Nagoya protocol. But yet again, pathogens must be excluded from any considerations.  

A failure to explicitly exclude pathogens from this new provision, aimed at biodiversity preservation, could have have serious consequences for the effective surveillance and rapid identification of new and emerging pathogen risks by the global health sector, and  risk undermining ongoing and future pandemic preparedness and response efforts.

Not only can we learn from how we’ve handled Covid-19, but attendees also have an opportunity to influence whether and how countries share information about pathogens at the pace required to keep up with health threats in the years to come.

Global policymakers in Montreal must clarify that information on dangerous pathogens was never meant to be withheld. Doing so may very well change the course of how we respond to tomorrow’s pandemics. 

Pamela Fralick is the President of Innovative Medicines Canada, representing Canada’s innovative medicines industry

Thomas Cueni is the Director General of the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.  

Image Credits: , NIAID, US Government Accountability Office, National Institutes Of Health Photo Library .

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