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Biopatents

Gene Vampires Strike in Rural China

Fifteen hundred people in rural China were tricked into giving blood to genetic vampires on the premise they would receive free medical care.

Researchers at Harvard University and its corporate sponsor, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., said that DNA from the isolated population in the mountainous Anhui province "is more valuable than gold".

Harvard has reaped millions of dollars in federal grants and private investment due to its access to Anhui DNA. Millennium was also able to raise tens of millions of dollars from corporate investors.

Samples from Anhui have been analysed through a variety of projects that include studies of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, human reproduction, nicotine addiction, obesity, osteoporosis, schizophrenia and twins.

English teacher Chen Hong said local health officials told villagers they were collecting health data "to study diseases related to genetics" for an "American" research project. Those who participated would receive a free exam, test results, follow-up care and a "health card" for a subsidised health care program.

Volunteers underwent a battery of tests and gave blood, but the test
results, follow-up care and health care program never materialised and all the medical problems that were identified went untreated.

"Promises were made," said one doctor. "Participants were told they
would get free medical care and reduced-cost care, but the research project never gave us the funds to do it."

In November 2000, the US Embassy in Beijing issued a warning to US medical researchers against working in rural areas of China where "health care is poor and people are unable to protect their rights."

On the Chinese side, Yang Huanming, the director of sequencing work for the Chinese Human Genome Project, offered scathing criticism. "I hope that Harvard and the School of Public Health will understand that the recruiting methods they use in China are unacceptable to the Chinese".

In China, critics attempted to stop or at least slow the expanding genetic research empire, but with little success. "It is bad research, pure and simple," said Yang, of the Genome Project. "They cheated the patients."

Qiu Renzong, one of China's leading medical ethicists and a senior government adviser, called for a joint US-Chinese review of the Harvard experiments. At Millennium, chief business officer Steven H. Holtzman, said he had no reason to believe that Harvard broke any rules in carrying out research in China.

Harvard continues to research in Anhui. With grants from NIH, they are launching a $3.5 million study of hypertension in 700 adults and teens and a $3.3 million nicotine study that will look for clues to cigarette addiction in the blood of 3,400 people.
Sources: In rural China, a genetic mother lode, Washington Post, by John Pomfret & Deborah Nelson sent by the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism. Debra Harry, dharry@ipcb.org December 20, 2000

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