Friday, March 31, 2006

Avian Flu and Intellectual Property

Illustration of a Pheonix breed rooster and hen
Data hoarding continues to impede avian flu research. While many samples of the virus have been collected and genetically sequenced, the researchers, labs and nations involved have been reluctant to make this information public.

Everyone hopes to be the first to win fame and fortune as the developer of the first avian flu vaccine, the patent-holder on the next flu drug, or even the genetic engineers of the flu-resistant chicken.

The chicken engineers are thinking big. Just look at this quote from the UK Times:

Even if the technique works, it will be several years before it can be used to stock farms and it also faces important regulatory hurdles and a battle to win over public opinion. If these obstacles are overcome and farmers are willing to adopt GM chickens, the entire world stock could be replaced fairly quickly.

Once we have regulatory approval, we believe it will only take between four and five years to breed enough chickens to replace the entire world population, Professor Tiley said. Developing flu-resistant chickens has clear benefits for human health and animal welfare, as we wouldn't have to slaughter chickens around the world. Chickens provide a link between the wild bird population, where avian influenza thrives, and humans, where new pandemic strains can emerge. Removing that bridge will dramatically reduce the risk posed by avian viruses.

Wow. Replacing the world's mind-boggling diversity of chicken breeds with a few genetically-engineered breeds.

One of our favorite pastimes this time of year is catalog shopping for chicken breeds. We get the catalog from Murray McMurray Hatcheries and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of various breeds. Some are bred for egg laying, some are bred for meat, some are old fashioned "dual purpose" birds. Some are known for temperment, important if you have a small yard and close neighbors. Some have retained "broodiness", the instinct to set on eggs and raise chicks that has been discouraged in lines bred strictly for egg laying. There are fancy breeds, blue egg layers, Polish crested chickens, and feather footed cochins.

So many chickens! Some breeds are foragers, ready to go out in the world and scratch for their dinner. Some are bred to just hang around and pump out eggs. Some are smart enough to roost in the trees at night. Some have had the sense bred out of them; they just huddle on the ground and wait to be eaten.

Each breed is the result of generations of breeding. I suspect the smarter, thriftier birds are the result of breeding that spans human generations, not poultry generations. There are countless more varieties of chickens, a different variety living in each little corner of the world, bred for centuries to best suit the microclimate and needs of the people who live there.

This is the old-fashioned method of genetic engineering: selective breeding and cross breeding to secure the traits that are favored. In good times, you might breed for a fancy tail. In bad times you might breed for survival in famine or resistance to the latest disease.

Now, confident that the only answer is in gene splicing, we are depopulating the countysides of their locally-bred chickens, in a losing battle to contain the virus. The disease is devastating to flocks; the birds look fine one day and the next morning 80 to 90% are dead. One wonders if the clue to flu resistance in poultry lies in that small sliver of surviving birds, the ones that are being culled with the rest. Or maybe it lies with the flock next door that appeared untouched by the disease but was culled anyway.

The first images of avian flu showed us armloads of chickens, held upside down by their feet, on the way to incineration. As someone who has catalog shopped chicken breeds, I wanted to shout: "Wait! What kind of chicken is that? Show me again, right side up! What a cool bird!"

But it was gone. Not just from my TV screen, but probably from the face of the earth.

Some people's intellectual property lies in their lab. Some people's intellectual property scratches and clucks out in the yard. How odd that we allow lab-base intellectual property to be hoarded, to the detriment of mankind, while barnyard-based intellectual property is tossed on the burn-pile?

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