Today I read this news report calling for a boycott of Novartis products and remembered what i really felt about this issue years ago.....

In ancient India and China, for centuries exotic animals, plant formulations and herbal concoctions and oils were used to treat diseases. Ayurvedic texts dating thousands of years prove that this traditional knowledge has been in the public domain and passed down from generation to generation for free (zero cost). Keeping knowledge in the public domain ensures a fair and level playing field for everyone. However today's medical world is in a race to uncover the genetic bases of illness, disease and human genome mapping. Scientists and the companies and institutions that pay them have begun to monopolise their efforts with patents for their work. This gives a monopoly right to commercially exploit an invention for 20 years in exchange for publication about how the invention was produced. Pharmaceutical and agro-bio corporations argue that genes, plants, and seeds must be patentable, since they have pumped money and invested their time to develop gene-based drugs or biotech crops.

Rationally speaking genes and crops are not inventions at all, and by allowing them to be patented, control is placed in the hands of a few. Patent monopolies on plants, animal species, human genes, and on new medicines, do threaten to harm developing countries in three ways :

One, higher medicine cost which restricts a citizens access to these new developments ;

Two, it eliminates cheaper local production as per the choice of a patent owner ; and

Three, it forbids farmers to cross-breed, reuse or use agricultural varieties as they were doing for thousands of years. As a result, access to new treatments could be restricted and seeds made too expensive for a poor farmer.


Consider bio-engineered seeds - Genes from rare species and subspecies are also useful in producing new breeds, whether by genetic engineering or ordinary cross-breeding. The drugs, seeds and nowadays the new breeds as well, are typically patented. This causes trouble for developing countries that use them. The 'seed treaty', adopted by UN-FAO member states was enforced in 2004 by corporate seed industry giants, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and Bayer, who get a vice-like grip on agricultural developing economies in many countries in Africa and Asia. They get guaranteed access to all the system material which came from farmers and are free to use any material from the system to develop commercial products, make as much profit as they can without any obligation to pay back, on the only condition that others can use their final, commercialized products for further breeding. While they never have to share any of their own materials, except the finished varieties they put on the market, exclusive control over "material under development" is guaranteed to their private collections, discarded rejects from the breeding process and everything else.

This "seed treaty" gives more rights to companies than asserting for farmers' rights by granting non-existent, new privileges to industry. It gives seed companies free access to most of the world's public gene-banks without any obligation to share their own materials in return. I was born and live in India, which has a 70-80% agricultural economy. Most farmers are poor with an average land holding of 5-10 acres and take loans to buy seeds while reusing the seeds from a successful crop for the next season. If the patented and genetically tampered seeds are introduced these poor farmers will suffer financial losses as the seeds have been tampered with genetically and have lost the ability to reproduce the next generation of plants. Some new studies highlight the detrimental effect that patenting drugs, crops, and seeds can have on developing countries. Forcing developing countries to accept developed world practices in patenting was likely to lead to higher-priced medicines and seeds, making poverty reduction more difficult. Under World Trade Organisation rules many of the patents are applicable worldwide.

Vital medical research aimed at developing screening methods and cures for congenital diseases is being stifled by the rush to patent human genes and the corporate use of those patents to maximise profits. Some laboratories have received letters from Corporation's informing them that they have acquired exclusive rights to certain tests in the diagnosis or genetic testing of certain gene testing or of Alzheimer's, Cancer or AIDS disease. Genomic inventions by nature tend to be composition-specific i.e., based on the nucleic acid sequence of the gene and/or the amino acid sequence of the expressed protein. A host of gene patents covering areas that may be important in developing a malaria vaccine (for example) are hindering public-sector efforts to develop affordable vaccination for the developing world. Testing anywhere else would infringe that patent so enter the "company with the patent" - they can now offer to perform the tests but the price per specimen would be very high and un-affordable for the common public.

Cheap treatments for millions of AIDS patients in Africa ended when the Indian parliament passed a legislation bill that makes it illegal to copy patented drugs which made medicines affordable for patients around the world. Indian's were forced to fulfill a commitment to the WTO's intellectual property regime under which, if a generic's manufacturer wants to copy a patented drug, the Indian government will have to issue a compulsory licensce giving the patent holder a royalty, who need not consent. In toto, the patent holding corporation can demand a higher royalty or demand exclusive sale rights or if they have a tie-up with an Indian firm, a higher percentage of the profits. Myriad Genetics Inc., USA, has been awarded nine U.S. patents on the breast/ovarian cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as patents covering antibodies to the BRCA proteins which was discovered in the Sanger Centre in Cambridge and the Institute of Cancer Research and was first published by the British group in Nature in 1995. Yet Myriad simply issued a press release announcing they were patenting it, giving Myriad exclusive rights to commercialize laboratory-testing services, diagnostic kits, and therapeutic products that use the BRCA1/2 sequences.

Patents on the human genetic code inhibits research designed to turn the explosive growth in genetic knowledge into practical ways of identifying inherited disorders and finding cures. The discoveries of genetic sequences for specific diseases or traits have been patented, and so too for genetically modified organisms themselves. The human gene patenting in the hands of a few companies, rather than in public domain (free), is an even more dangerous idea. By picking out four areas where gene patents are being claimed \u2014 in diagnostic tests, as research tools, in gene therapy, and for the production of pharmaceutical proteins \u2014; patents can be inappropriately awarded to the detriment of the public interest. Utility is a critical component of a patent, and an inventor cannot obtain a patent without proof that the invention is useful which is a subjective matter, and difficult to define using objective standards.

The use of patents or exorbitant licensing fees prevents clinical labs from performing genetic tests and limits access to medical care, jeopardises the quality of medical care, and unreasonably raises its cost. The high testing cost puts the new drug and testing procedure out of the hands of the researchers working on government grants, but need to examine hundreds of samples in the search for new mutations and possible therapies. Patent lawyers ensure that genetic testing is limited to specific corporate sponsored labs, thus diminishing access to testing which affects quality as the laboratories cannot cross-check their samples for quality control if one laboratory is doing all the testing.

As a society and from a humanitarian viewpoint ethics in biotechnology are crucial. The developed world is pushing intellectual property (IP) rules with selfish interests, with scant regard for the interests of the poorer developing nations. Patenting erodes bioethics as biotech companies have high financial gain via "biopiracy", moreso by basing their work on natural varieties, human genes found in developing countries or indigenous peoples. Practically, the best solution is to not to allow patents on genes, thereby keeping this knowledge in the public domain, and only give monopoly rights when real innovation and application has been demonstrated. People must be free to grow and breed all sorts of plants and animals for agriculture; manufacture medicine and use genetic engineering to freely commission the genetic modifications that suit their needs without paying royalties to multinational corporations.

Think, today your employer pays your medical bills so you can afford the best medical care. What happens when you retire? Compound costs with the annual inflation rate and coupled with the fact that India does not have a social security system in place nor a social medical system, unlike other nations - Australia, Canada, Chile, US and European nations to name a few. So who will pay your medical bills when you are a 60+ senior citizen with no government pension or public medical aid. Rising medical costs, inflation and the unknown future can burn up your savings post-retirement before you can cry "Help"!