Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Progress in genomics: developing countries are losing out, say researchers

3 May 2004

Despite the tremendous potential that genomics holds for improving global health, its benefits are not realized equitably across nations and the current patent system is partly to blame, say the authors of a new paper published in the Bulletin (2004;82:385-389).

"National patent systems are not designed to benefit the citizens of other countries," say the authors of the paper. "It is at this point that patent systems run up against the global public good nature of genomics knowledge."

Dr Tikki Pang of the World Health Organization's (WHO) department of Evidence and Information for Policy, said: "This paper adds to the current debate on alternative models to intellectual property rights…action and alternative models must be investigated to ensure that developing countries benefit from the genomics revolution."

Richard Smith and co-authors of the paper, Genomics knowledge and equity: a global public goods perspective of the patent system, classify genomics knowledge as a global public good. Public goods, in contrast to private goods, are available for everyone's benefit free of charge and are non-rivalrous — one person benefiting from it does not prevent another from doing the same. Global public goods exhibit these characteristics across national boundaries. However, although, genomics knowledge represents a global public good in principle, in practice there are constraints on its dissemination and utilization, say Smith et al. These constraints are put in place by the very system which aims to encourage the creation, dissemination and use of knowledge for the benefit of society: the national patent system.

In order to address this problem, the paper's authors call on international organizations to lobby national governments, industry and other key players to "recalibrate" the patent system in relation to developing countries and to take additional measures such as the creation of research and development funds targeted at the diseases of low- and middle-income countries.

Their call for action is echoed in a draft resolution to be presented at the Fifty-seventh World Health Assembly on 21 May 2004. The resolution states that "it is time for governments, the scientific community, civil society, the private sector and the international community to pledge their commitment to ensuring that the advances of genomics are equitably shared by all."

Rather than foregoing the patent system which plays an important role in encouraging genomics research, Smith et al. argue for a two-pronged approach. Firstly, the relaxing of some of the international rules applying to the patenting of genomics knowledge, such as governments' rights to issue compulsory licences as dictated by the TRIPS agreement; secondly and concurrently, the development of mechanisms outside traditional patent law to encourage the creation and dissemination of genomics knowledge within low- and middle-income countries.

Such supplementary measures may include the creation of research and development funds targeted at "neglected" diseases and the development and implementation of legislation for those diseases in developing countries to enable the purchase of more affordable drugs.

Smith et al. also suggest a third alternative — the establishment of disease-specific public-private partnerships such as the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Global Alliance for Tuberculosis Drug Development which have resulted in over 70 such global health partnerships. "Through such schemes, the private sector is provided with promising markets, while the population benefits from a lowering of drug and vaccine costs."

Genomics is the comprehensive examination of an organism's entire set of genes and their interaction. Recent years have seen unprecedented advances in the science of genomics, culminating in the unveiling of the final version of the entire human genome sequence in April 2003.

"Information generated by genomics will, in the long term, have major benefits for the prevention, diagnosis and management of many diseases which have been difficult or impossible to control," says the report Genomics and World Health: Report of the Advisory Committee on Health Research, published by WHO in 2002 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2002/a74580.pdf

To read the paper, Genomics knowledge and equity: a global public goods perspective of the patent system, see: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/82/5/en/385.pdf.