Pharmaceuticals and Biodiversity: To protect ourselves we must safeguard our planet

“80% of registered medicines come from plants, or have been inspired by natural products. Right now, the cure for cancer, or COVID, could be going extinct” – Peter Bickerton, Earlham Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the critical importance of biodiversity as a protection against new diseases and as an element of the medical response. If we fail to safeguard healthy, intact ecosystems, not only could the world experience more pandemic events, but also we will have fewer pharmaceutical development options. 

The relationship between nature and health has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine development. Despite growing recognition of the importance of biodiversity, it continues to decline with significant consequences for human health and the pharmaceutical industry. Research suggests that we may be losing an 'important drug every two years'.

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Biodiversity and the pharmaceutical industry 

The State of Knowledge Review on biodiversity and health by CBD, WHO and UNEP estimates: “The value of the global trade in plants used for medicinal purposes may exceed US$ 2.5 billion, and is increasingly driven by industry demand.” Moreover, research by Erwin, López-Legentil and Schuhmann suggests that in the marine environment, there is an estimated $563 billion - $5.69 trillion in cancer medicines awaiting discovery

In an interview with Mongabay, André Hoffmann, a board member of Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, outlines both the importance of nature for the industry as well as the shifting attitudes towards sustainability, with increasing pressure from customers, employees and investors. 

How are pharmaceutical companies responding?

Pharmaceutical industry actors increasingly recognize the importance of biodiversity conservation for their long-term prospects. In the CBD policy brief Bioscience at a Crossroads, Sarah A. Laird emphasizes the increasing support for the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing: 

“Large pharmaceutical companies support the need to sign agreements, reach mutually agreed terms, and share benefits. Benefit sharing packages that include a wide range of monetary and non-monetary benefits over time have become standard practice.”

This shift is also represented at the company level, with many devising and implementing corporate strategies for biodiversity. Bayer, for example, has articulated a strategy that includes protecting forests and supporting farmers in integrating biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation into crop production.

The industry, however, must continue to improve biodiversity supports and practices, including quantifying impacts, as Hoffman highlights: 

“We need to find a way to measure the impact that businesses are having on this dimension as well as the impact that biodiversity loss has on business.” 

How can the pharmaceutical industry be part of the solution for nature? 

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    Biodiversity supports human wellbeing in countless ways. The pharmaceutical industry represents one of the most tangible examples. If we hope to continue to improve human health, advance medical discoveries and respond quickly to emerging health risks, we must safeguard our biodiversity, support its sustainable use and ensure that the benefits from biomedical discovery are shared by all. 


    More Information:

    Business and Biodiversity

    State of Knowledge Review on biodiversity and health

    Bioscience at a Crossroads: Access and Benefit Sharing in a Time of Scientific, Technological and Industry Change: The Pharmaceutical Industry