Forum Bioethik

News from Tonga (Febr 2002)

Opposition Stalls Genetic Profiling Plan for Tonga by Bob Burton

CANBERRA - A proposal by an Australia-based biotechnology company to
establish a database of genetic information on the people of the tiny South
Pacific nation of Tonga is floundering in the face of strong opposition from
church and human rights groups.

Three centuries ago they came for sandalwood. Today the bastards are after
our genes.

Lopeti Senituli Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement

Thus, the director of the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement, Lopeti
Senituli, is insistent that the Melbourne-based company Autogen should
clearly state whether it has abandoned the project or not.

''We really cannot afford to go back to the frontier days when it was open
season on all things indigenous to the Pacific Islands,'' said Senituli, who
spoke at the Australasian Bioethics Association Conference in Adelaide on

In November 2000, Autogen informed the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) that
it had signed an agreement with the Tongan Ministry of Health to establish a
research project aimed at ''identifying genes that cause common diseases
using the unique population resources in the Kingdom of Tonga''.

Tonga, composed of 170 islands and with a population of 100,000 people, was
attractive to Autogen as its population descended from a small number of
people, thereby simplifying the search for genes potentially associated
diseases common among Tongans.

While Autogen is a small fish in Australia's expanding biotechnology sector,
it boasts as its chairman and largest shareholder, Joseph Gutnick, one of
the leading businessmen from the Australian Jewish community.

Aside from his mining interests, Gutnick is a confidant of former prime
minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in August last year attended a
special forum on biotechnology co-hosted by Autogen. Former Australian Labor
Party Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, is also on Autogen's board.

While Autogen is politically well connected, it did not anticipate the
reaction to its proposal.

Senituli, whose group proposes major democratic reforms away from reliance
on the Tongan monarchy, objected to the secrecy surrounding Autogen's
proposal. ''We expressed opposition to it primarily because there was no
public discussion'', he said.

At first, the Tongan minister for health claimed that the agreement with
Autogen only committed the government to conduct further discussions. Later,
he denied having signed any agreement.
According to Bob Phelps, director of the Australian-based non- government
organization GeneEthics Network, Tonga was the first country to sell human
genetic information.

''The significance of the Tonga proposal is the extent to which absolute
rulers and governments are prepared to go to cooperate with commercial
interests to exploit every natural resource, including the genes of their
own people,'' he said.

Autogen's proposal sparked region-wide concern amongst the churches. In
March 2001, the Tongan National Council of Churches, along with the
Geneva-based World Council of Churches, convened a conference on bioethics
involving church and community leaders from throughout the Pacific region.

The conference resolved to oppose ''all forms of genetic engineering'' and
cloning because ''the conversion of life forms, their molecules or parts
into corporate property through patent monopolies is counter-productive to
the interests of the (people) of the Pacific''.

While Autogen stated its intent to support prior informed consent of
volunteers willing to give blood samples, the churches insist that such
decisions would have to also consider the collective rights of the extended

Autogen's proposal flows from an alliance it formed with Merck Lipha, a
subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical giant Merck, which is funding the
search for gene discoveries involving weight imbalance, diabetes and insulin
resistance. If genes associated with the diseases could be identified, Merck
hopes it could develop new drugs for a potentially lucrative market.

While Autogen flagged economic benefits from the research, such as jobs and
funding for a new medical research facility, Senituli believes the benefits
from the proposal were heavily weighted in favor of Autogen. ''What they are
offering us is little, a drop in the ocean in comparison to what Autogen is
bound to get if there is any success'', he said.

Stung by the opposition, the chief scientific officer of Autogen, Professor
Greg Collier, insists the company no longer has any immediate interest in
doing research work in Tonga.

''We are not actually doing anything in Tonga. What we have decided to do
and this is a scientific decision and a resources decision more than
anything is to concentrate our resources into investigating more into the
Tasmanian population (in Australia)'', he said.

But Senituli is not reassured. ''What intrigues us is why Autogen has not
removed the reference to Tonga from its website, why has the stock exchange
not been told and why is Merck in Germany telling everyone they have a
project in Tonga? This is what worries us'', he said.

Collier has no intention of issuing a clarifying statement to the ASX or
removing the reference to the Tonga proposal from its website. ''There is no
changing that ` it would look more like to me that we are covering our
tracks. I think it is open to have anyone to discuss what has happened in
the past as well as what is happening in the future,'' he said.

Even if Autogen retreats from Tonga, Senituli believes that others will
follow in their footsteps in what he sees as the next attempt to colonize
their resources. ''Three centuries ago they came for sandalwood. Today the
bastards are after our genes,'' he said.

Published on Monday, February 18, 2002 by the Inter Press Service
Copyright 2002 Inter Press Service

28.06.2001 15:57:32
Merck-Tochter plant Genforschungs-Projekt auf Tonga 

        Greenpeace spricht von Biopiraterie 
   Hamburg/Darmstadt (AP) Eine Tochter des Darmstädter 
Pharmakonzerns Merck ist an einem Projekt zur Erforschung des 
Erbgutes der Bevölkerung der Südsee-Inselgruppe Tonga beteiligt. 
Dies bestätigte die Firma am Donnerstag und wies gleichzeitig den 
Vorwurf der Umweltorganisation Greenpeace zurück, sie betreibe 
Biopiraterie. Im Rahmen des Projekts soll den Bürgern von Tonga Blut 
zur DNS-Analyse entnommen werden. Auf der Grundlage der Erkenntnisse 
sollen mögliche genetische Ursachen für Diabetes und Fettsucht 
erforscht werden.

   Das Königreich Tonga schloss einen entsprechenden Vertrag mit dem 
australischen Biotech-Unternehmen Autogen. Die hundertprozentige 
Merck-Tochter Lipha S.A. mit Sitz in Lyon ist mit 13 Prozent 
zweitgrößter Anteilseigner bei Autogen. Der Vertrag sieht vor, dass 
für kommerziell verwertbare Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojekts 
Lizenzen an den Staat Tonga zu zahlen sind. Die Blutproben würden 
freiwillig abgegeben, betonte Merck.

   Demgegenüber erklärte der Greenpeace-Gentechnik-Experte Stefan 
Flottmann: "Die Menschen von Tonga werden zum kommerziellen Objekt, 
menschliche Gene werden zum Betriebskapital erklärt. Das Vorgehen 
der Firma zeigt, wie notwendig es ist, dass Patente auf Gene 
verboten werden."


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