November 26, 2019

Explainer: the Nagoya Protocol and its impact on global health R&D

Philip Kenol
Policy and Advocacy Officer
PATH/Matthew Dakin

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that at its upcoming Executive Board meeting in February, member states will discuss challenges and issues in implementing the Nagoya Protocol—a legal framework that governs the access to and benefits gained through the sharing of genetic resources, including human and animal DNA, plants, and pathogens. As these discussions heat up, GHTC is taking a brief look at what the Nagoya Protocol is, how it impacts global health research and development (R&D), and what’s next for the future of this framework.


The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization‒or Nagoya Protocol for short‒is a legal framework that went into effect in 2014. It regulates the sharing of genetic resources, including human and animal DNA, cultures and specimens, plants, and pathogens that are used in the course of R&D.

Origin and goal

This protocol supplements a United Nations treaty, endorsed over a decade earlier in 1992, called the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which established a basic principle: That every country has sovereignty over the genetic resources found within its borders. Its broader goals were to support the conversation of biological diversity, ensure its sustainable use, and ensure the “fair and equitable sharing” of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources.

The Nagoya Protocol was established to advance that third and final goal by creating greater legal certainty and transparency for both the providers and users of genetic resources. The protocol establishes more predictable paths for gaining access to genetic resources and creates frameworks for tangible agreements that outline the benefits that a donor country will receive in exchange for providing access. It also requires that users comply with any national legislation or regulatory requirements in the provider country governing the collection, use, or storage of these resources.  

How does it work in practice?

When a researcher, company, or institution wants to access the genetic resources in a foreign country that is party to the protocol, it should start by obtaining a prior informed consent from the country where the materials are located and outline the goal of the planned research and use. Second, the party seeking access and the provider country should also negotiate and reach “mutually agreed terms” that set conditions for the use of the genetic material and define the benefits arising from their use, such as when commercial products results from such research. These benefits could be monetary, such as a lump-sum payment or a share of the profit, or non-monetary, such as transfer of knowledge, technology, or training. 

A healthy debate over the Nagoya Protocol

The aim of the protocol is to stop piracy of genetic materials across borders. Sovereignty is at the heart of the matter. Health authorities in low- and middle-income countries are often concerned that providing genetic resources will not yield a tangible benefit to their country or that the genetic materials will be shared without their consent and result in health innovations that may ultimately be unaffordable to their population. Ensuring that there are access provisions in place is critical.

On the other hand, the provisions of the Nagoya Protocol can have a negative impact on international research collaborations. From basic research through clinical trials, medical research is highly collaborative and routinely involves the sharing of organisms, cultures, and research findings across borders. Adhering to the protocol can place a heavy bureaucratic burden on researchers and their institutions or companies who must comply with its requirements, as well as the procedures or laws of individual countries, which can vary greatly. The process of obtaining prior-informed consent and reaching mutually agreed terms between users and countries can take several weeks or months, putting research temporarily on hold.


These delays can have serious consequences to public health. For example, in late 2018, implementation of the Nagoya Protocol in several countries caused significant delays in sharing seasonal influenza strains. Given selecting the strains for each year’s seasonal flu vaccine is a time sensitive process and researchers need genetic material to make this determination, this resulted in a delayed seasonal vaccine rollout and lack of public health preparedness to address influenza.

Many fear that the protocol could cause similar challenges in detecting and responding to emerging infectious diseases, including advancing medical products, given pathogens spread regardless of national borders and creating control measures requires partnerships and sample and data sharing between countries and research institutions. Long negotiations to obtain specimens for research potentially increase the risk of disease spreading in populations that have no immunity and can harm the global interest of protecting against emerging infectious diseases.


Given the potential impacts that the Nagoya Protocol could have on the development of vaccines and other medical products, many stakeholders are calling for exemptions to the protocol and for alternative approaches for the sharing of genetic materials to be considered. In the aftermath of the of the swine and avian flu a decade ago, WHO developed an agreement called the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, which outlines a potential path forward to mitigate unforeseen health consequences related to the protocol. The agreement provides for global sharing of pandemic influenza viruses within a network of public health laboratories. Organizations and companies outside of this network can also access this pool of viruses after making a partnership contribution to and signing a material transfer agreement with WHO, in which they agree to share benefits. While the agreement only covers flu, some see it as a model that could resolve the disputes over the Protocol and genetic materials and sequence sharing, and create a timelier pathway for researchers looking to combat emerging infectious and other global diseases.

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