Zimbabwe is developing an animal vaccine against ticks and Australian scientists are doing the same thing “but Zimbabwe is unlikely to release its tick genes to the Australians for fear they will move faster and end up selling Zimbabweans their own genes in the form of a vaccine”.
This is one of the startling revelations made by Robert Walgate in his book: Miracle or Menace? – Biotechnology and the Third World – which was published recently by the Panos Institute.
China on the other hand has granted exclusive rights for a new hybrid rice variety capable of increasing production by 25 percent to two United States companies. Although the variety is of no profitable use in the northern markets, the technology is being withheld from developing countries where rice is the main source of protein for two billion people.
Biotechnology -the application of biological science to manipulate and use living things for human ends- Walgate says, could change the face of the world by boosting crop yields or creating new vaccines but there are fears that it could also put developing countries even more at the mercy of giant corporations because they control the technology.
According to the book, 28 new vaccines could be developed over the next decade using biotechnology.
The world’s forests could be expanded by cloning old, highly productive trees.
The production of cassava, a major staple food in Africa, could be quadrupled if it can be made more resistant to disease, and rinderpest -which kills two million cattle a year in developing countries- could be wiped out using a new vaccine created by an Ethiopian scientist.
However, there are fears that although the genetic resources required are abundant in the Third World, developing countries might not totally benefit because the technology is controlled by multi-national corporations which are seeking patents for the genes they develop so that they can sell them at a profit.
Even developing countries themselves might not be prepared to share their know-how with either Third World or developed countries for fear that they might be overtaken and end up being sold their own genes.
The book says biotechnology also poses some dangers if for example genes escape accidentally from laboratories or are deliberately released from engineered organisms. This could be disastrous and might, for example, result in weeds that are uncontrollable.
The research could also spell disaster for small farmers in developing countries as some cash crops could be replaced by substitutes cloned in laboratories.
Walgate, however, notes: “Biotechnology is neither demon nor angel. The key to its success or failure will be the willingness of both the North and South to cooperate and share the wealth or benefits it could bring.”
Biotechnology would be of tremendous benefit to the human race if developed and developing countries cooperated especially in developing new vaccines because millions of people are dying every year from common diseases.
According to Walgate acute respiratory infections are the biggest killers in the Third World and claim the lives of about 10 million, mostly babies and children, each year.
Second on the list are circulatory ailments, including diabetes, which kill 8 million followed by low birth-weight as a major cause of other infections whose toll is five million.
Although there is a cheap and easy to make treatment for diarrhoea, the disease still claims four million lives each year, while measles kills two million out of 67 million reported cases.
Injuries kill two million, malnutrition, another two million, cancer 1.7 million and tetanus 1.2 million. There are 107 million cases of malaria causing 1.5 million deaths.
Tuberculosis beats them all with one billion cases but only 900 000 deaths. Hepatitis B kills 800 000 but there are 300 million cases each year while whooping cough and typhoid, each kill 600 000.
Half a million mothers die each year while giving birth while meningitis kills 350 000. Syphilis kills more people than AIDS and accounts for 200 000 compared to AIDS’s 50 000 to 70 0000 deaths.
Other major killer diseases and the number of deaths are: rheumatic fever (52 000), hookworm (50 000), rabies (35 000), diphtheria (30 000), dengue (15 000), hepatitis A (14 000), yellow fever (9 000), ascaris – intestinal worms up to 40cm long – (10 000), giardiasis intestinal protozoal infection – (10 000), polio (2 000), leprosy (1000).