UN agreement aims to combat ‘biopirates’

UN agreement aims to combat ‘biopirates’

After more than 20 years of talks, the United Nations wants to finalize an international agreement this month to combat so-called biopiracy.

Their solution is to bring more transparency to traditional knowledge patents surrounding genetic resources.

The World Intellectual Property Organization, the UN agency dealing with IP and innovation, wants to get such knowledge protected from exploitation.

WIPO’s 193 member states will negotiate the agreement from May 13 to 24 at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva.

Here’s a rundown of the issues at stake, fault lines and why the country is waiting so long.

The use of genetic resources, and related traditional knowledge, without the consent of those who hold it, and without the holder being able to benefit.

Genetic resources are contained in, for example, medicinal plants, agricultural crops and animal breeds.

These resources are increasingly used in everything from cosmetics to seeds, medicines, biotechnology and food supplements.

Since there is no obligation to publish the origin of innovations, many developing countries are concerned that patents are granted either bypassing indigenous rights or issued for existing inventions. Such cases can end in long legal battles.

“This is colloquially referred to as biopiracy,” said Wend Wendland, director of WIPO’s traditional knowledge division.

While natural genetic resources themselves cannot be directly protected as intellectual property — because they are not inventions of the human mind — inventions developed using them can, often through patents, WIPO said.

Inventions based on genetic resources, and related traditional knowledge used and preserved by indigenous people for generations, may be eligible for protection through the patent system.

Patent applicants have to disclose from which countries the genetic resources involved in the invention come, and the indigenous people who provide the traditional knowledge.

The aim is to improve the “effectiveness, transparency and quality” of the patent system, WIPO said, to ensure that inventions are truly new and that countries and communities have given their consent.

More than 30 countries have such disclosure requirements in their national laws. Most are developing countries, including China, Brazil, India and South Africa, but there are also European countries, such as France, Germany and Switzerland.

But these procedures vary and are not always mandatory.

Transparency should improve the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, which stipulates that people who provide genetic resources or traditional knowledge should benefit from the advantages — financial or otherwise — arising from their use.

Developing countries have been asking for more transparency about the origin of genetic resources for decades, but it was Colombia that made the first formal request to WIPO in 1999.

It took years of negotiations to whittle down 5,000 pages of documentation on the subject to an 11-page draft agreement.

Two years ago, the countries unexpectedly agreed to hold a diplomatic conference in 2024 to finalize the deal.

Only the United States and Japan officially distanced themselves from the decision, without however going against the consensus.

WIPO hopes that the treaty can be adopted by consensus rather than a vote.

For indigenous peoples and developing countries, the agreement “will be seen as a victory”, Thiru Balasubramaniam of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International told AFP.

Several issues remain to be resolved, including what happens to those who break the rules.

The draft text gives patent applicants the opportunity to correct any non-disclosure of information before sanctions are imposed, and patents can only be revoked if there is intent to deceive.

Countries must also agree on the definition of genetic resources.

There is disagreement about the information that patent applicants must provide: should they, for example, name the country where the plant grows, or the plant’s place of origin?

There are also questions about the scope of the agreement, for example whether to include human genetic resources.

The International Chamber of Commerce urged WIPO member states to “consider the voice of the business community to strike an appropriate balance” so as not to stifle innovation.

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