China to regulate stamp licking?

Human genetic resources outflow under tighter control, Xinhuanet, October 9, 2003.

This (somewhat spotty) news report notes that “the Chinese Ministry of Health and State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine” issued a statement that would require “organizations or individuals [to] apply to authorities for a permit to take, mail or transport human genetic materials out of China.”

Are we to assume that there will be no more licking of stamps without a permit in China? The answer isn’t obvious. There are often enough cells on the back of licked stamps and envelopes to extract DNA evidence for forensic investigation. Such tactics were used to aid in the prosecution of suspects involved with the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, one person licked the stamp and another licked the envelope of a letter sent to the NYT claiming responsibility for the act. In an excellent chapter contesting the arguments for genetic exceptionalism, Thomas Murray notes that while the largest tissue bank may well be “in the hands of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse” the motivation and resources to actually extract information from microscopic samples (and return address labels) just isn’t.

It is interesting to conjecture about the motivations behind
China’s maneuver. Like whether this embargo is intended to protect
Chinese citizens from genetic discrimination abroad (?), or whether
this embargo is aimed to protect something else (e.g. profits that
would come from the development of drugs targeted for diseases that
have a high incidence in the large Chinese population)?

UPDATE: The timing of China’s regulatory maneuver suggests it
could have been prompted by UNESCO’s International Declaration of Human
Genetic Data (see here or my post above). The key excerpt:

…States should regulate, in accordance with their domestic law and international agreements,
the cross-border flow of human genetic data, human proteomic data and biological samples, so as to
foster international medical and scientific cooperation and ensure fair access to this data. Such a
system should seek to ensure that the receiving party provides adequate protection in accordance
with the principles set out in this Declaration…

I am curious to know more about the procedure of obtaining a permit
in China to send genetic samples abroad. Presumably, the review process
would examine the circumstances under which Chinese citizen X is
sending the sample, including any contracts between the citizen and the
receiving party. Any information send me email.

UPDATE 2:
Robert Kneller, Ownership of Inventions
Derived from Natural Products and Human Tissues, and Sharing of
Benefits from the Commercialization of such Inventions
. Presented at a symposium entitled “Rethinking International Intellectual Property.” (pdf)

According to this article, the story begins back in 1997 when
“senior Chinese geneticists expressed concern that if foreign
laboratories analyze Chinese tissue samples, discoveries related to
these samples would likely be patented and commercialized by
foreigners, and China would not share in the commercial benefits.” By
June 1998, China issued Interim Measures for the Administration of Human Genetic Resources (text can be found here).
This decree established the Human Genetics Resources Administration of
China (HGRAC), which would oversee all activities related to the
collection and export of human genetic data. How many countries are
attempting to regulate cross-border flows of DNA, I wonder?

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