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Biotech patents come under fire

Opponents to the gene patent law say it's weak in some aeras

(Keystone)

The pharmaceutical industry and non-governmental organisations have voiced strong reservations about a controversial law on the patenting of genes.

The government says the new legislation, which is currently under consultation in Switzerland, would help safeguard the country’s booming biotech sector.

The proposal forms part of an overall revision of Swiss patent law. It was originally put forward in 2002 but was poorly received by the public.

A second consultation period began last month and is due to run until the end of October.

The government says the proposed law would protect biotechnology in Switzerland and encourage more investment in research and development.

Switzerland has a strong biotechnology sector: since 1998 the country, which is home to 227 biotech companies, has been ranked number six in Europe and number nine in the world.

Criticism

But at a meeting on Thursday organised by “Science et Cité”, a foundation promoting dialogue between experts and the public on scientific issues, the industry hammered the government’s proposal.

Thomas Cueni, head of Interpharma, which represents the interests of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, said the draft law was in need of further revision.

“Basically when you look at the objective… it is to send a clear message that you want to protect innovation and you want to foster and promote Switzerland as a strong research location,” Cueni told swissinfo.

“Unfortunately, our assessment is that this target will be missed because… patent protection in Switzerland for inventions and biotechnology will be weaker than in the United States and in most European states, and that is certainly the signal you do not want to send,” he added.

Cueni is also concerned that the law only allows patents on gene sequences if their use has been clearly defined, which he says exceeds a European Union directive on the subject.

He is also unhappy with the part of the law which makes it obligatory for researchers to declare the origins of their genetic resources and knowledge.

Ethics

François Meienberg, from the non-governmental organisation, Berne Declaration, agrees that there are some fundamental problems with the proposal – but for very different reasons.

“You will still be allowed to patent human genes and genes of plants or animals, and we think it is not good to have patents on life,” Meienberg told swissinfo.

He added that there could also be a negative impact on science as a whole.

“When you have patents on genes, a lot of other scientists are reluctant to do research in the same field because they know even if they invent something, they can’t commercialise it because there’s a patent on it,” he said.

But Meienberg added that in some areas the government had got it right, such as limiting patents on genes to their function, and ordering researchers to reveal the origin of their genetic resources.

But he said the government should go further and oblige those asking for patents to prove they obtained their information legally.

Overall, Meienberg said the proposal was a step in the right direction, especially as the current patent law was drawn up before the advent of biotechnology.

“If there wasn’t a new law, then the situation would be left unregulated and that would be very bad solution,” said Meienberg.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Biotechnology is the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes.
Switzerland is home to 227 biotech companies.
The Swiss rank sixth in Europe and ninth worldwide for biotech.
Over SFr19 billion ($15 billion) was invested worldwide in the sector last year.

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