By Nadine Kandolo
What is biotechnology and its application?
Biotechnology is about the scientific applications used in many areas, for example, agriculture and health, which involve the use of living organism or just a part of a living organism to deliver new techniques of production and help make new products. This process requires the development, and of course, the application of genetic modifications of living cells to take place, as it is traditionally believed that microorganisms have much to offer when used to enhance humans' well-being.
To take the matter further, the applications of biotechnology in developing, as well as developed countries, are diverse. However, countries also require rapid decisions and efficient diagnostic tools to overcome the great need to tackle global health issues, in addition to the need to introduce efficient public health measures. New vaccines and drugs, efficient methods and novel approaches to therapeutics, while ensuring a low-cost restoration of water, soil and other natural resources are also vital measures to respond to global health problems. In 2002, the University of Toronto in partnership with international scientists with expertise in biotechnology and global health issues, reported the top 10 biotechnologies that can potentially help improve health in developing countries, predominantly:
- Molecular diagnostics
- Recombinant vaccines
- Vaccine and drug delivery
- Sequencing pathogen genomes
- Female-controlled protection against sexually transmitted infections
- Enriched genetically modified crops
- Recombinant therapeutic proteins
- Combinatorial chemistry
This report has identified ways in which these technologies can be used to achieve goals that are specified for health and development of people in developing countries. Biotechnology infers the diagnosis of diseases, whilst providing their treatment, cure and prevention. There is a wide range of advanced drugs, diagnosis and vaccinations based on biotechnology that has been made available, and therefore consisting of an integral part of a healthcare system. In addition to these implications, biotechnology has been proving successful in many imaging and surgical intervention techniques.
However, the amount of resources available is limited, especially in developing countries, where new techniques must be prioritised to ensure that policies are followed correctly. For example, in China and India, drug makers have been able to manufacture more than 80% of the active ingredients in drugs sold worldwide. Nevertheless, these manufacturing companies have never been able to copy the complex and expensive biotechnology medicines that are progressively used to treat non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer in rich countries, notably the United State, in recent years. Arguably, the entry into the market of those generic drug companies, selling cheaper copies of vital drug, such as Herceptin for breast cancer, Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis, Avastin for colon cancer and others, have resulted in the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in biotechnology plants and laboratories, while also transforming the healthcare of many patients in many parts of world, including developing countries themselves. On the other hand, these new entrant companies have also been facing increasing criticisms by main pharmaceutical companies and diplomats from rich nations. Perhaps, a more powerful argument here against major Western pharmaceutical companies is that they have long been criticised for developing a biassed view against drugs needed in developing country markets, and for opposing settling monopoly control over drugs, such as antiretroviral cocktails that are used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. However, researchers in affluent countries have well responded to existing incentives, which has concentrated their attention on the production of drugs that slightly improve effectiveness or minimise side effect marginally for wealthier markets. In fact, on any plausible account, funding a research that could help develop a vaccine against malaria, for instance, has been a challenge for researchers themselves.
Having disposed of the claim that research is needed to mitigate issues of essential drugs and vaccines shortage in many parts of the developing world, this now brings up the question to find out the underlying cause of the problem. Do intellectual property rights and the structure of incentives that researchers are interested in creating a negative effect on the right to health that can be rationally avoided?
The answer is yes; however, many drugs that are being developed by major pharmaceutical companies under the current property right protections have a great contribution to healthcare and are used as generic on ‘essential drugs’ for in developing countries for the treatment of malaria, for example. This situation has improved the health outcomes of the people in those countries rather than they would be if such drugs were absent. Moreover, these essential drugs would not have been produced regardless of some form of property right protections, which means that people in developing countries are not worse off than they would be in a completely free market, with no temporary monopoly on products. Many people have argued, however, that introducing different incentive schemes means people in those countries that experience a poor market economy are better off than what they currently are. Nevertheless, some people have argued about the best schemes to be selected and proposed that incentives should be revised for drug development by creating a tax-based fund in developed countries that would enable drug companies to be rewarded in proportion to the impact of their products on the global burden of diseases.
What is the role of private sector in the development of health biotechnology in developing countries?
Insofar as it is mentioned in this discussion, health biotechnology is undoubtedly becoming the main driven force, able to sustain the economic development of developing countries, which has also improved the efficiency and accessibility of healthcare system for poor people. This core industry, additionally, creates employment opportunity and produces revenue for these countries. Most importantly, the private sector plays a central role amidst other innovative sectors in health innovations. The former considerably contributes to the growth of health biotechnology by bringing in expertise, knowledge, sources and relationships capable of translating inherent research and development into new commercial products and innovative processes. This contribution has been increasingly recognised and highlighted by governments in developing countries, other agencies and international organisations. Consequently, the relationship between public and private sector is established and strengthen, in order to support the potential of the private sector to produce more affordable healthcare products. Nevertheless, it is important to remind that this remarkable progress made by the countries in the developing world in health biotechnology is partially due to the dramatic shift in health biotechnology in the industrialised world.
In conclusion, countries, predominantly Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, South Korea, South Africa, and China are proven to be considered as innovative developing countries due to the fact that they have been engaging intensively in research and maximising the number of their health products. The majority of their initiatives have been recognised and supported by government investments, as well as by the expansion of the private sector, which plays a vital role in the development of the economy. Furthermore, health innovations in these countries have filled the gap in the global health needs that researchers in the Western Europe have left open. In essence, from 1975 to 1999, around 1,393 health biotechnology products were developed but only 16 were produced to target tropical diseases, where tuberculosis is a major health threat for developing countries. However, it is vital to mention that, essential medicines and health care are still not affordable and available to most people in the developing world, despite the increasing success in health biotechnology.
A, Gulifeiya., Alijunid, S.M. (2012) Development of Health biotechnology in developing countries: can private sector-sector players be the prime movers? Biotechnology advances, Research Gate 30 (6) p. 1589-601. Available online at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225056598_Development_of_health_biotechnology_in_developing_countries_Can_private-sector_players_be_the_prime_movers [ Accessed on 04/08/2016]
 Research incentives in developing and developed countries in this paper refer to the reward system, which is aiming to motivate researchers to seek new methods for stimulating pharmaceutical innovation for endemic diseases in developing countries, and enabling access to resulting drugs. Such incentives, such as prizes, government contracting and other voluntary supplements could play a useful role in addressing unmet needs and fill the gap for specific research.