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Biopatents

TRIPS Not Taking Account of the Poor

The UK Department for International Development's white paper on improving the WTOs agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was published last December. It proposes an international commission that will consider how to take greater account of the interests of developing countries and poor people, including access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge. So why are they not supporting the African Groups proposal for a review of TRIPS, especially of Article 27.3(b) on patents on life?

Article 27.3 facilitates theft of biological resources and traditional knowledge from the South, The 1999 UNDP Human Development Report warns of negative socioeconomic impacts on developing countries. The United Nations Sub-Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (Resolution E/CB.4/Sub.2/2000/7 dated 17 August, 2000), similarly, has taken note that "actual or potential conflicts exist between the implementation of the TRIPS Agreement and the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights".

At the WTO Council for TRIPS (Dec. 2000), a review of Article 27.3(b) was on the agenda once more. The African group and others from the developing world wanted Article 27.3(b) to be amended to clarify that life forms and living processes cannot be patented. But negotiations are at a deadlock since the review process started in December 1998. The US, EU and other developed countries in the North are still unwilling to review Article 27.3(b).

The 'Joint NGO Statement of Support for the Africa Group Proposals', issued in Aug 1999, now has 600 signatories from around the world. But the TRIPS Council refused to discuss it and sidelined it to avoid revision.

The transition period for implementation of Article 27.3(b) expired on January 1, 2000. That means the majority of the developing countries are now legally obliged to implement Article 27.3(b) within their national laws or face the threat of being taken to the dispute settlement body of the WTO. To initiate a review of Article 27.3(b) would allow exemption from implementing the provision. Developing countries are extremely concerned that TRIPS will promote or hinder economic development. These fundamental issues are at the heart of the review of Article 27.3(b) and must be addressed.

During the Seattle Ministerial Conference, developing countries submitted numerous proposals to address and resolve these problems. The failure of the WTO to act on these has resulted in a major loss of credibility for the WTO, which can only be regained if the African groups' proposal is given the respect it deserves.
Sources: Third World Network, paper on TRIPS; Patent regime should take account of the poor Nature Vol 408 No 6814 p 762.

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