Pharmaceutical firms stand accused of once again plundering native lore to make fortunes from natural remedies, writes Antony Barnett.
For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia gordonii plant to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.
The Kung bushmen who live around the Kalahari desert in southern Africa used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and munch on it over a couple of days. According to tradition, they ate together so they brought back what they caught and did not eat while hunting.
Now the Hoodia, which grows to 6ft – taller than the bushmen themselves – is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits developing countries through the international patent system.
In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused of failing to provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in Cambridgeshire, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived from an African cactus.
It emerged that the company had patented P57, the appetite-suppressing ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle.
Phytopharm’s scientists boasted it would have none of the side-effects of many treatments because it was derived from a natural product. The discovery was immediately hailed by the press as a ‘dieter’s dream’ and Phytopharm’s share price rose as City traders expected rich returns from a drug which would revolutionise the £6bn market in slimming aids. Phytopharm acted quickly.
It sold the rights to license the drug for $21m to Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pill form within three years. Having made millions from Viagra, the impotence drug, Pfizer now believes it has in its laboratories a drug that is going to beat fat. But it appears that while the drug companies were busy seducing the media, their shareholders and financiers about the wonders of their new drug, they had forgotten to tell the bushmen, whose knowledge they had used and patented.
Phytopharm’s excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used the Hoodia plant were extinct. Richard Dixey, the firm’s self-proclaimed Buddhist chief executive, told the Financial Times : ‘We’re doing what we can to pay back, but it’s a really fraught problem… especially as the people who discovered the plant have disappeared.’
Yet this weekend leaders of the people Dixey believed had disappeared are having their annual gathering at a farm 45 miles north of Cape Town. One of the top items on the agenda is to plan their strategy against Phytopharm and Pfizer. They are angry, saying their ancient knowledge has been stolen, and are about to launch a challenge and demand compensation.
Roger Chennells is the lawyer for the tribal bushmen, who number 100,000 across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. He argued their case in 1999 when the bushmen won 100,000 acres of white-owned farmland on the edge of the Kalahari.
Speaking to The Observer, Chennells said: ‘They are very concerned. It feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and cashed it in for a huge profit. The bushmen do not object to anybody using their knowledge to produce a medicine, but they would have liked the drug companies to have spoken to them first and come to an agreement.