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4-Patents: EU Trade Commissioner supports disclosure ofgeographical origin in biopatents



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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  As precious as gold
        Pascal Lamy emphasizes the importance of biodiversity to developing
        countries
SOURCE: U.N. Environmental Programme, Our Planet
        http://www.ourplanet.com/
DATE:   2003 / 1

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


----------------------------------------------------------------------------
   "The key proposal in the paper is a means of obliging applicants for
    patents who have used the fruits of bio-prospecting for new products
    to disclose the geographical origin of any biological material used
    in biotech inventions. At present, there is no such obligation."
----------------------------------------------------------------------------


As precious as gold

Pascal Lamy emphasizes the importance of biodiversity to developing
countries and outlines moves to secure a fair deal on trade in its riches

Plant and animal resources have always fed and nurtured us. Recognizing
and protecting their biodiversity in complex ecosystems is a major
challenge of our times: the challenge of sustainable development. Many
believe the potential of bio-resources has barely been tapped, and that
traditional knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants, for
instance, still has valuable secrets to offer. Apart from drugs from
plants known locally through traditional knowledge, disease-resistant or
hardy crops are examples of the kind of resources that might become
available through biotech inventions.

The biodiversity of the rainforest is a resource as real as any precious
metal. Consider the language that has developed around it, with so-called
'bio-prospectors' seeking commercially valuable resources. Such agents
are not always seen as benign. Activists see 'bio-piracy' as a new crime
of our times - that of companies which abuse their power in seeking to
obtain patents or other forms of intellectual property protection over
inventions involving resources or traditional knowledge that belong by
rights to their respective communities.


Special responsibility

As the world's biggest trading partner, the European Union (EU) has a
special responsibility to respond to the issues that biodiversity raises.
The legitimacy of the world trading system is at stake in a debate that
one could caricature as pitting the technology-rich North against the
biodiversity-rich South. That is why I believe the current Doha
Development Round of negotiations, under the auspices of the World Trade
Organization (WTO), must address developing countries' legitimate
concerns, while developing intellectual property protection that can and
should benefit everyone with a stake in the issue.

The EU signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into
force in 1993 as a result of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This
aims to conserve biological diversity, the sustainable use of its
components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising
out of the utilization of genetic resources. The EU's aim is to foster
its implementation in all respects, with technical assistance to enhance
the capacity of developing countries to do so if necessary. This can, I
believe, be done while pursuing negotiations within the WTO framework.

The Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, which
came into force in 1995, aims to create minimum standards of intellectual
protection that all WTO Members must recognize; to ensure states make
available procedures for holders to enforce their intellectual property
rights; and to provide a disputes procedure.

I am aware that many countries fear that the TRIPS Agreement may
undermine the aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity, or may not
support them enough. Some are concerned that it does nothing to ensure
that those seeking patents for inventions based on genetic resources
respect the Biodiversity Convention's principles on benefit-sharing. They
argue that the absence of information on the geographical origin of bio-
material used in inventions makes it difficult for them to keep track of
the commercial use of these resources or to check whether bioprospectors
have respected the principles of the Biodiversity Convention.


Material benefits

Indigenous or local groups in developing countries are right to expect to
benefit materially if their traditional knowledge is applied in ways that
are shared via commercial initiatives and trade. This is why the EU is
working on ways of helping developing countries rich in traditional
knowledge to identify it and prevent it being undervalued or abused.

To move the discussion forward, the EU has contributed a Concept Paper
for discussion at the WTO's TRIPS Council in Geneva (1). This explores
the relationship between the TRIPS agreement and the Biodiversity
Convention, and recognizes developing countries' legitimate concerns to
ensure that the agreement encourages those seeking patents over biotech
inventions to respect the Convention's basic principles.


----------------------------------------------------------------------------
   As the world's biggest trading partner, the EU has a special
   responsibility to respond to the issues that biodiversity raises
----------------------------------------------------------------------------


The key proposal in the paper is a means of obliging applicants for
patents who have used the fruits of bio-prospecting for new products to
disclose the geographical origin of any biological material used in
biotech inventions. At present, there is no such obligation. The paper
also supports the idea of providing better protection for traditional
knowledge, and recognizes the right of subsistence farmers in developing
countries to re-use and exchange seeds, even those covered by
intellectual property rights via so-called farmers' exemptions. Larger-
scale commercial farmers would stay subject to more stringent rules.

The EU's paper argues that if we use the tools at our disposal, TRIPS and
the Biodiversity Convention - far from being in conflict - are compatible
and can mutually reinforce each other, both at the national level and
internationally. To this end, the EU welcomes the work of a new World
Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Intergovernmental Committee on
traditional knowledge. This may result in a new international model for
the legal protection of this important knowledge: with it we could focus
attention on the extent to which such protection can be included in the
TRIPS Agreement.

There will be practical problems on the way, as many countries that might
benefit in the long run do not yet have legislation in place on access to
genetic resources. We must welcome the will of Like-Minded Megadiverse
Countries meeting in Cancun in February 2002 to make progress with a
united front on this issue.

The raw material of which I write is mostly concentrated in habitats
still being explored for genetic resources, far from the shores of the 15
EU countries. So why has Europe taken up this cause? The answer is this:
if the Doha Development Agenda really is going to make the developing
world a better place for its citizens, then there must be a fair deal
when we review this part of the TRIPS Agreement. The EU is committed to
making sure this happens. We all stand to gain in the end


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Pascal Lamy is EU Trade Commissioner.
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(1) EC Communication to the TRIPS Council on the review of Article
27.3(b) of the TRIPS Agreement; the relationship between the TRIPS
Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity and the protection
of traditional knowledge and folklore, September 2002 (http://
europa.eu.int/comm/trade/miti/intell/contrib.htm).