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Day 2 of COP 15 – Highlights

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8 December , Montreal The COP15 meeting venue is close to my hotel. It is about 7 minutes’ walk. Yesterday wasn’t a very good walk in the chilling temperature of 2 degrees and morning drizzle. Luckily I had an umbrella. So it was a different feeling when I woke up this morning. A glimmer of happiness slowly settled on my tired eyes as I gazed out of my hotel window. From the fourteenth floor, the beautiful rays of the sun had begun to shower their golden streaks. It looked nice and lovely, but I was sure it wouldn’t be warm outside like in Fiji. It was a beautiful morning but chilling – it is winter in Montreal, after all, and what more can you expect? Today was a full day for me. I am following several issues that were on the agenda for today. These were digital sequencing information, synthetic biology and access, and benefit sharing. As usual, the Pacific delegations met in the morning preparatory and planning session before everyone slowly disappeared into the crowds of thousands of people rushing to find their meeting rooms.

With just two days into meeting, COP15 is paving way for success to come. There was considerable progress into discussions within the last two days of intense discussions that has culminated from several layers of negotiations. In Working Group II, with the Chair for Contact Group established for Risk Assessment and Management reporting that they successfully produced a clean draft based on Recommendation 24/5 of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA).

The digital sequencing information (DSI) discussion is taking an interesting turn. Digital Sequencing Information, or DSI, is genetic data or information derived from looking at the genetic makeup of flora or fauna, which is passed onto a database for storage. Only some countries believe DSI is not within the scope of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Nagoya Protocol. In contrast, many others think DSI is within the scope of the convention and the Protocol and hope that Parties will consider it included in the post-2020 biodiversity framework.

From IISD report – a number of developed countries questioned the feasibility of completing negotiations at this meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP), urged focus on principles, and cautioned against subjecting DSI use to cumbersome legal procedures. Some stressed the need to assess the proposed policy options on the basis of industry and stakeholders’ views, and to consider the legal feasibility of any solution on DSI under the CBD. Three parties reiterated their view that DSI falls outside the CBD scope and the definition of genetic material, with one stressing that any COP decision should note parties’ divergence of views on whether DSI falls within the Convention’s scope.

The issue about the scope of DSI arises from legal implications and terms surrounding it, while those supporting its inclusion see Nagoya Protocol as having the mandate to include any digital information that is derived from genetic resources. For instance, drawing an image or an impression of something requires ‘that’ something to be physically present. How can we not associate DSI with genetic resources? Without those resources, call it there will be no DSI. The second issue is the nature of benefit sharing arising from the use of DSI. Like the benefit-sharing requirements under the Nagoya Protocol during access to genetic resources, Parties are similarly calling for sharing benefits from using DSI. While this appears a simple thing, it is not. Benefit sharing may also affect open-source data, research, and scientific development. Parties are carefully calling for sharing of benefits from the use of DSI but ensuring that open-source data is accessible and that it doesn’t hinder scientific research and development.

An excellent example to look at is the COVID-19 virus. Because of the DSI, digitally stored information of the gene sequences of the SARs COVID virus, the development of the vaccine in such a short time during the pandemic’s peak was possible. Similarly, at the COP, a case study on Pigeon beans was presented at a side event explaining how DSI played an essential role in identifying the virus causing widespread damage to the lentils. Parties are currently exploring three policy options for benefit sharing from DSI. The bilateral, multilateral, or hybrid solution.

Another considerable discussion that is evolving at the CBD COP is around Synthetic biology. I have been following this from COP 13 in Mexico and still see no progress. Some Parties believe that SynBio is a relatively new idea and an emerging area of science and must be deferred to the future. Living Modified Organisms (LMO’s) are good examples of SynBio. It is scientifically engineering genes of organisms for valuable properties. Because it is an emerging area in science, Parties are reluctant to agree on texts for what little is known about. The contact group on SynBio agreed on the proposed process for broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring, and assessment of the most recent technological developments in synthetic biology, and after discussions and deliberations agreed to start for an intersessional period. This gave flexibility and compromise in the room to remove some of the brackets in the texts. Participants also managed to agree that no further analysis should be undertaken on whether synthetic biology is a new and emerging issue, leaving this question open instead. 

For Protected Areas, a regional bloc noted that rather than focusing on expansion of protected areas, qualitative aspects need to be addressed. 

Other issues at the COP are rapidly developing , I will keep you all posted. For now a freezing evening awaits as I stroll down the streets to gather some energy from a hot soup. After all it is tempting to grab something every time I cross the Chinatown.

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