Why Digital Sequence Information​ Should not Come Under the Nagoya Protocol

With the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity set to consider whether digital sequence information (DSI) is a genetic resource and thus under the scope of the Nagoya Protocol, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) sends a strong message to COP14 calling for agreement on a globally accepted and legally-binding definition for DSI and for it to be excluded from the scope of the Nagoya Protocol. 

DSI has a significant role to play in environmental, life sciences and biodiversity research. Open and free access to DSI allows scientists from all over the globe, irrespective of finance, status or location, to be able to do genetics research. Such research often brings significant benefits, both for society and biodiversity, for example, sharing DSI is important for the surveillance of infectious diseases (in humans, animals and crops) and invasive species across the globe. Indeed, without the effective and timely sharing of DSI, only possible via digital means, the impact of recent Ebola and Zika disease outbreaks would likely have been much greater. 
The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation to the Convention of Biological Diversity (the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing) entered into force on 12 October 2014. It aims to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources, and if relevant, the use of any associated traditional knowledge. The fourteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in Egypt from 17th until 29th November 2018. Amongst the items on their agenda will be a discussion as to whether digital sequence information (DSI) is counted as a genetic resource and hence whether it falls within scope of the Nagoya Protocol, or not. LERU has developed this short note to contribute to this debate.
LERU strongly believes that DSI should not fall under the scope of the Nagoya Protocol. In LERU’s view the benefits to biodiversity and conservation research worldwide and society at large, from unhindered open access to DSI, far outweigh any (financial) benefits which providers could gain from restricting access. 
LERU believes that:

  • The lack of a globally-accepted and legally-binding definition for DSI adversely impacts on university research as universities may not always know which research activities would be subject to the Protocol and which would not be.
  • Including DSI within the existing Nagoya Protocol frameworks would have a detrimental effect on research activities as universities would find the time, effort and (potential) cost of compliance too great compared to any benefits which it could bring. This would especially be the case for non-commercial research which can have significant societal benefits but perhaps negligible or no direct financial benefit for the university. 
  • Placing restrictions on accessing DSI will hinder research collaborations and capacity building, and would undoubtedly have detrimental effects to those countries which could arguably benefit from it the most. 

LERU calls on the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol to develop urgently a robust and uniform description for DSI (and what it is not). Only when this definition is agreed should there be any discussion as to potential mechanisms for access and benefit-sharing. 
COP 14 needs to urgently implement substantial actions to promote conservation and prevent further biodiversity loss globally. Given the large benefits for biodiversity and society at large from open access to DSI, LERU questions the benefits of placing restrictions on accessing such data. Professor Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General of LERU, believes that, ‘Restricting access to DSI will certainly lead to a significant reduction in research activities that could otherwise aid much needed biodiversity and conservation efforts at a time when the need to act has never been more urgent’.

League of European Research Universities (LERU)