Ecuadorean Government Accuses Harvard Medical School Researchers and Others of Biopiracy

A public ombudsman in Ecuador has accused researchers at the Harvard Medical School, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research of Camden, New Jersey, and Maxus Energy Corporation of unlawfully acquiring and/or selling human DNA from members of the Waorani indigenous people in the Amazonian region of that country. Boletín de Prensa No. 100, Defensoría del Pueblo se pronuncia respecto a uso ilegal de ADN Waorani (Jul. 12, 2012).

News articles from Ecuador recount that, in 2010, a representative of a group of Waorani filed a complaint with the Defensor del Pueblo, a public agency established by the Constitution of Ecuador, accusing the Corriel Institute of unlawfully possessing and selling DNA samples taken from the indigenous people. Se investiga posible uso ilegal de ADN de huaoranis, El Comercio (Jul. 14, 2012). The ombudsman opened an investigation and interviewed many members of the Waorani community. According to the agency’s press release, witnesses testified that in 1990 and 1991, a group of foreigners, including a Harvard researcher and a physician from Maxus, visited the community and took blood samples from individuals, claiming that the specimens were a necessary part of their medical examinations. The blood extractions purportedly occurred at a time when several vaccination campaigns were being carried out.

The Defensor del Pueblo contends that the Coriell Institute obtained Waorani blood samples extracted by Maxus, and that from those samples, Coriell has distributed seven cell cultures and 36 specimens to institutions in eight countries. According to the agency, the Waorani blood samples were obtained without the prior informed consent of the individuals involved or of the competent public health authorities, and the continuing possession, use, and distribution of the samples violates Article 66 (3)(d) of the present Constitution of Ecuador. That article prohibits “the use of genetic material and scientific experimentation that undermines human rights.”

The Defensor del Pueblo has filed with several government agencies—including the Ecuadorean Institute of Intellectual Property—a resolution condemning the allegedly unlawful extraction, possession, and distribution of the Waorani blood samples. In addition, the ombudsman has requested that the Attorney General of Ecuador take action against the Coriell Institute.


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