This week's Economist looks at the growing level of innovation in the health-related biotechnology industries of developing nations. No longer simply copying existing drugs and treatments, nations such as China, India, Cuba and Brazil have begun to make substantial contributions to global bioscience. Biotechnology is an ideal leapfrog pathway, as it doesn't require a substantial existing industrial base, only well-educated scientists -- education acquired both in the West and, increasingly, at home. It also is a useful pathway for dealing with one of the problems of development: populations afflicted by serious diseases, yet not rich enough to be seen as an attractive market for American and European pharmaceutical companies.
Developing world biotech groups have come up with innovative treatments for (among others) Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Chagas Disease, and AIDS, with the research sometimes based on local knowledge of indigenous plants and traditional treatments. Some of the research is government driven, but local entrepreneurism is an important part of biotech innovation. This may present some difficulties down the road; the rapid growth of the developing world biomedicine industry is triggering some concern for health activists such as Médecins Sans Frontières. This is not because the drugs and treatments aren't useful -- they are, critically so -- but because a number of these biotech leapfrog nations are starting to adopt stricter patent regimes, potentially restricting the ability to produce cheap copies of new medicines produced elsewhere. A conflict between the principles of South-South science transfer and the desire for WTO membership seems to be on the horizon. It will be interesting to see if the growing "open source" biotech movement gains any ground in these nations.
The Economist piece is based on the December issue of Nature Biotechnology, which surveys the state of health-related biotechnology research in Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea. (PDFs of each of these articles are available at no charge, although a multi-step free subscription to the website is required.) Each article looks at examples of recent health biotech developments, as well as the lessons each state teaches to other developing nations looking at local bioscience efforts. Nature's overall conclusions are worth listing, because they apply to leapfrogging efforts beyond biomedicine:
This is indeed very interesting. I know a bit about bio-engineering crops, a sector in which Western giants like Monsanto dominate. But not for long. Just as it's the case in big pharma for medicines, these giants don't invest in crops which are of little global commodity value, but that are used by millions in the south (like sorghum or cassava). And here, both China and Brazil are making progress. They're already selling gmo species to African farmers.
I firmly believe in the power of South South science transfers.