On the Origin of Samples: Pathogen Provenance and the Rise of the Material Transfer Agreement

Michelle Frances Rourke


The purpose of this Opinions article is to inform scientists of the access and benefit-sharing (ABS) laws that could encroach on their ability to obtain pathogen samples for research purposes. The United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) reaffirms the sovereign right of states over their genetic resources and recommends that access to such resources occur on mutually agreed terms and with the prior informed consent of eligible providers. This creates the conditions for a quid pro quo on genetic resources, essentially transforming them into articles of trade. The CBD cedes the authority to determine the terms of access to genetic resources, including pathogens, to national governments and this has created a patchwork of domestic ABS regulations around the globe. This article posits that the current ABS regime creates unacceptable incentives to avoid benefit-sharing obligations that could irreparably skew the scientific record. Scientists may restrict their research to samples collected from countries with lax ABS policies, or might even be tempted to misrepresent the provenance of pathogen samples to avoid entering into protracted and potentially expensive benefit-sharing negotiations. The article concludes that one solution might be to use Material Transfer Agreements as a chain-of-custody tool until such time as policymakers can reconcile the ambiguities and inconsistencies of international pathogen sharing regulations.


Convention on Biological Diversity; Nagoya Protocol; Access and Benefit-Sharing; Genetic Resources; Sovereignty

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