9 September 2008
Authors document cases in rich, poor nations, where patents are preventing science from tackling disease and hunger
OTTAWA – (9 September) The world’s intellectual property system is broken. It’s stopping lifesaving technologies from reaching the people who need them most in developed and developing countries, according to the authors of a report released in Ottawa today by an international coalition of experts.
“We found the same stumbling blocks in the traditional communities of Brazil as we did in a corporate boardroom,” said Richard Gold, professor of intellectual property at McGill University and chair of the International Expert Group that produced the report. “Most striking is that no matter where we looked, the lack of trust played a vital role in blocking negotiations that could have benefited both sides, as well as the larger public.”
“For better or for worse, biotechnology is at the heart of current debates about health care, the environment, food and development,” Gold said. “It offers the promise of producing plants to resist drought and nourish the world’s poor, and to offer new medicines and energy sources. Biotech is at the heart of not only today’s economy but its security and well-being as well.”
The report released today is the result of seven years of work by Gold and his colleagues, experts in law, ethics and economics. The report was funded by the Government of Canada and drew on the accounts and opinions of policy-makers, NGO leaders, industry representatives, scientists and academics from around the world.
While biotech’s potential seems unlimited, so do its problems. The report finds that a fixation on patents and privately-controlled research has frequently given rise to controversy and roadblocks to innovation. Recent examples include: the $612 million patent suit that almost shut down the world’s Blackberries; Myriad Genetics’ inability to introduce its breast cancer screening test in Canada and Europe; a pharmaceutical industry with an increasingly bare medicine cabinet; an ongoing failure to deliver life-saving medications to developing countries.
The current crisis in biotechnology has given rise not only to economic problems but to endemic mistrust among its actors that is stifling innovation and preventing cutting-edge technologies from helping those who can most benefit. The report and case studies provide the following as illustrations:
While exposing a number of systemic failures associated with biotech and IP regimes, the Expert Group reports that the best innovative activity occurs when everyone – researchers, companies, governments and NGOs – works together to ensure that new ideas reach the public, but are appropriately regulated and efficiently delivered to those who need them.
Most recently, Gold and his colleagues were instrumental in helping UNITAID, an international governmental group, design a patent pool to unblock patents so that needed fixed dose combination and pediatric antiretroviral medicines reach those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
“The end of our old way of doing business does not mean we don’t need a system for protecting intellectual knowledge,” Gold said. “We need an IP system that will support collaborations among researchers and partners in industry and academia worldwide so that knowledge gets to those who need it most. This means the laws may have to be changed, but more importantly, it means that we have a lot of work to do to change behaviors and build trust among all the players. How people behave – in other words, their practices – and the effect of practices on innovation is critical. Public and private institutions – patent offices, courts, universities, governments, corporations and industry groups – that manage, award, review and hold intellectual property also play an essential role in shaping the IP system.”
TIP is an independent non-profit consultancy with experts in developed and developing countries specializing in the understanding, use and management of intellectual property. TIP’s mission is to foster innovation and creativity through the better use of intellectual property and its alternatives.
The report released today, Toward a New Era of Intellectual Property: From Confrontation to Negotiation, documents a series of failed attempts to expand access to both traditional knowledge and the products of modern biotechnology. The authors, members of the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and IP make a number of concrete recommendations to address their findings. Pointing to governments, the private sector and universities as crucial players, they call for better management of scientific knowledge and new ways to measure whether technology transfers are working. The following are among their key recommendations:
To access the findings of the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property click here.