PATENTING HUMAN BODIES

 

Sir, The supplement "Medicines and health care" (November 20th) contains a series of incorrect assertions. In order to provide a balance to the somewhat snide attacks on those of us who hold a different view, it is necessary to correct some of the more obvious inaccuracies.

The most glaring is the repeated assertion that human parts were not intended to be patented. In fact, the proposal "Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions" put forward by the European Commission in March 1995, and voted down by the European Parliament, was specifically intended to allow for the patenting of human body parts, tissues, cells, gene therapies, etc. In December 1995, the commission presented a new directive "with nearly the same contents i.e. parts of the body are still patentable they just may not be "in their natural state" in the human body. The second part of Article 3 states "The subject matter of an invention capable of industrial application which relates to a part isolated from the human body or otherwise produced by means of a technical process shall be patentable..."

Contrary to the commission's claims, the new draft directive is not about harmonisation of existing laws, but is an extension of patentability. At present the European Patents Office has pending 1,000 applications on human genes, 300 on genetically engineered animals, and about 100 in the field of gene therapies and diagnostic methods.

Likewise, the denials of stealing Third World resources ring hollow. The GATT Agreement with its Trade Related Intellectual Property System (TRIPS) is the new form of colonialism, sparking off demonstrations throughout the developing world. On October 2nd, 1993, on Gandhi's birthday, 500,000 farmers from all over India and the Third World rallied in opposition in Karnataka, in the south of India.

In 1993 the European Council decided that European states should only ratify the Bio Diversity Convention together with an interpretative statement which basically says that the genetic resources of bio-diversity (of Third World countries) shall be patent able. As most of the genes being patented or used in patented's processes come from the Third World, but almost none of them belong to Third World companies, many NGOs talk of "bio-piracy". First World companies have taken out more than 30 patents on the Neem Tree of India not only on the tree, but also on the indigenous knowledge about its many uses.

Patent 5401/504 claims the use of turmeric for healing wounds. The Indian Government is arguing that turmeric is a well known traditional medicine used in India. The Indian Government has also revoked the patent on transgenic cotton. In Ecuador, the TRIPS treaty with the US was blocked by protests and demonstration ranging from environmentalists to the national pharmaceutical manufacturers.

It is also erroneous to state that "patents on life" are necessary to speed up the alleviation of patients' pain. Indeed, a number of scientists and doctors are pointing out that the patenting of genes, and the therapies and diagnostic methods to go with them, will cause delays in getting the treatments to the patient. But even more obvious is that the very nature of patents ensure a period of secrecy, and as the majority of scientific research is increasingly done on a contract basis with a specific company, an immediate culture of secrecy surrounds each project.

The Green Party believes that life is not a result of genetic engineering. We believe the following should be declared unpatentable

1. Humans, human parts, human tissue and all genetic matter originating or derived from human sources.

2. Processes and techniques for genetic modification of such human matter and methods, treatments and therapies for applying such processes and techniques.

3. Animals, animal parts, animal tissue and processes for genetic modification of animals.

4. Plants, seeds, plant tissue and other living material. Yours, etc., Green Party National Spokesperson for Food and Agriculture, Clohane House, Bandon, Co Cork.