No need to say sorry

September 12, 2003

Western pharmaceutical companies have many reasons to apologise to indigenous people worldwide, but the case of the hoodia-based drug ("First people's fight for rights", THES August 29) is not one of them.

Some facts: the San, South Africa's first people, have known of the appetite-suppressant properties of the hoodia plant for centuries. Have the San ever shared this knowledge with the rest of the world? No. Would they be deprived of their "indigenous knowledge" by the development of hoodia-based drugs? No. Would any pharmaceutical company incur the substantial costs of medical trials without some temporary property right in the drug? No. Your piece is just an example of woolly thinking.

The drug being trialled by Pfizer is not the same substance that is chewed by the San in their hunting expeditions. As you say, "the plant is their IK", but the drug is not, and they could not claim a patent on it.

I am no defender of a system of private pharmaceutical research and development that invests more in drugs aimed at reducing anxiety in pets than in diseases such as malaria, but the well-founded guilt complex of the West should not obscure the facts regarding the "hoodia case".

Manfredi La Manna
Reader in economics
University of St Andrews

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