22 August 2008

How Sick Are Patents? Ask Indonesia

Some time back I noted that one of the crazier consequences of an obsession with intellectual monopolies was that vital health information - specifically, DNA sequences of bird flu viruses - were not being released to other laboratories for fear that the unscrupulous might patent the damn things (as if naturally-occuring DNA could be patented). Fortunately, the country in question, Indonesia, was persuaded to release them to the scientific community for the common good. And what happens? This:

A recent patent search has revealed that the CDC, which is a WHO collaborating centre, is applying for a patent for a new vaccine against influenza, particularly for bird flu (H5N1). The vaccine incorporates genes from a H5N1 strain isolated from an Indonesian human victim of bird flu in 2005.

The strain that contains the genes was transferred to the WHO GISN by Indonesia for characterization for public health purposes, but may wind up as the property of the US government.

Under US law, the US government agencies would offer licenses to the technology to pharmaceutical companies. The patent application indicates that the US government intends to pursue the claim in most countries of the world, including Indonesia itself, as well as neighboring countries.

Got that? Indonesia releases the sequences, and the US CDC does indeed patent that information, a situation which could then force Indonesia to pay for vaccines based on its own sequence data to protect its citizens. This probably means that fewer vaccines will be bought, more people will die, more mutations in the flu virus, and more deaths globally. So how, exactly, is this particular intellectual monopoly good for the world?

I just hope that one day a book is written about this, and the people responsible are named - and utterly shamed - for actions that are not only morally despicable in themselves, but which endanger literally the whole of humanity. How sick is that...? (Via How the World Works.)

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