Patent-based regulation of genetic resources could undermine health in developing countries

The Australian APEC Study Centre has released a report showing how proposals for a patent-based regime to regulate access to genetic resources could inhibit efforts to protect biodiversity and undermine health in developing countries.

The study was released during a meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity's Working Group on Access and Benefit Sharing of bio-resources in Bangkok, Thailand. The Group is negotiating an international regime on access to genetic resources.

"We all agree that preserving the world's biodiversity is an important goal," said Ambassador Alan Oxley, chairman of the APEC Study Centre -- Australia, and author of the study, Developing Effective Approaches to Access to Genetic Resources. "But if we get this wrong, it could be a lose-lose result."

"Some 'mega-diverse' countries (countries with large biodiversities) had proposed placing conditions on patents on things developed from genetic resources as a tool for protecting biodiversity," said Oxley. "The general idea is to require approval for each use of a product based on a patent after the patent was issued."

"Some countries believe this would control biopiracy (theft of genetic resources) and generate opportunities to secure payments to pass on to indigenous communities," he added.

"This was not the most effective way to solving these problems," said Oxley. "The study showed that the best way to control biopiracy is to set up a system of contracts where bioprospectors paid for the right to search and collect genetic resources, and to enforce it."

"The best way to ensure benefits go to local people is to get the right prices through competitive bidding for licences to bioprospect and ensure payments get to local communities," he went on.

"This system generates income, which can be used to improve protection of biodiversity," Oxley pointed out.

Oxley said the idea of restricting patents would be less effective and have unintended consequences. He said it would discourage bioprospecting, thereby reducing income from fees.

"Restricting how patents were used would also discourage investment to develop new products," said Oxley. "Companies would not invest in research and development if they did not know if they could use new products based on patents," he added.

"The result in mega-diverse countries would be less investment in biotech sectors and less capacity-building in local communities. Who wants that result?" asked Oxley.

Oxley said the report noted that restrictions on patents would also inhibit development of new medicines of which developing countries were major beneficiaries. "Life-threatening illnesses like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and cardiovascular disease hit developing countries harder than the First World," he said.

Before the meeting began in Bangkok, countries which had designated themselves as the "like-minded mega-diverse countries" (LMMCs), issued a statement proposing that the new international regime regulate intellectual property law. They included Bolivia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Congo, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaya, Mexico, Peru, The Philippines, South Africa and Venezuela.

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