28 December 2008

Western Hypocrisy on Intellectual Monopolies

There is currently a huge bun-fight going on at the WHO over who has the "rights" to "own" key genomic information about pandemic influenza viruses. This is tantamount to arguing over who has the rights to hire out deckchairs on the Titanic as it goes down: the idea that intellectual monopolies have any meaning in a world threatened by hundreds of millions of deaths from a new pandemic strain is beyond obscene.

What makes this spectacle particularly disgusting is the hypocrisy of the West: not content with trying to patent the unpatentable, it wants the developing countries to give up *their* "rights" so that the West's industries can maximise their profit (failing to notice that it is hard to spend all this luvverly profit when you and/or your bankers are dead). Here are some of the sordid details:

Several delegates participating in last week's Intergovernmental Meeting on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (IGM) (under the World Health Organisation) from countries providing influenza viruses to laboratories and manufacturers in developed countries, privately mentioned that the positions taken by developed countries in particular by the US, Japan and the EU on issues such as intellectual property rights and benefit sharing reveals the "double standards" of those countries.

On the one hand, the IGM saw the US, Japan and the EU pushing hard for relinquishment of sovereign rights, an interpretation of the International Health Regulations that obligates the sharing of viruses, text that requires countries to share as "all, as feasible, cases of H5N1 and other influenza viruses with human pandemic potential" with their laboratories in the name of global public health and pandemic preparedness.

However, on the other hand, they appear unwilling to commit in particular their manufacturers and researchers that receive biological materials to any concrete benefit sharing scheme, or to address IP issues in a manner that benefits developing countries' public health and pandemic preparedness. Much of the framework's text that deals with benefit sharing continues to remain in brackets, denoting there is no agreement.

Whenever reference to "manufacturers" and the need to have a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities was made by developing countries at the meeting, the issue was quickly passed over by the Chair of the IGM, Jane Halton from Australia. And countries such as Japan and the US insisted that the framework being developed should not dictate what the manufacturers or the researchers can do with the biological materials, or their roles and responsibilities.

You would have thought that against the background of a financial system brought to its knees by blind greed, at least here at the World *Health* Organisation there would be a more, er, healthy and mature attitude to saving the world from a potentially even greater disaster. Apparently not....

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