In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people can't patent isolated human genes, which it considers a product of nature, but they can patent something exceptionally similar: cDNA, a synthesized copy from which someone has removed the noncoding parts. Given that fine line, it's not entirely clear how the decision will play out in practice or how it will affect work on nonhuman genes. But it's a hot area of debate.
Earlier this year, Dutch scientists received a patent from their country on the newly discovered MERS virus that killed at least 30 people. The researchers had isolated the virus in their laboratory from a sample sent by a Saudi doctor. The Saudi Ministry of Health protested that the patent would restrict research and lead to more deaths; the World Health Organization (WHO) said it would investigate the legality and take action. But they've got it backward. Patents are one of the best tools for quickly fighting disease.
A patent creates a financial incentive for innovation and discovery. The patent holders get something like a limited-time monopoly on their creation, and they can license full or partial rights to others (including to companies better at commercialization).
Patents also force people to share information about innovations and their commercial potential. U.S. patents are public record and must disclose enough detail for anyone to theoretically replicate the patented thing (although one can't legally replicate it without a license). After 20 years, all that actionable information becomes public domain.
Biological patents have already been saving lives for some time. In the 1920s, the researchers who isolated insulin from the pancreas patented it in order to ensure that only trustworthy drug manufacturers could make it. Then they licensed it to the University of Toronto for $1. Later, in 1984, researchers patented HIV.
A 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of bio-patents sparked the booming biotech industry we have now. At about the same time, the European patent office decided that patenting biology was illegal. Naturally, start-ups multiplied like crazy in the U.S., not Europe. By 1998, Europe had changed course and encouraged biotech to return.
The Dutch researchers say they grabbed the rights to the new virus to prevent others from hogging them and that they'll forgo profits and share the isolated virus with other researchers for free. (Whoever comes up with a treatment or vaccine would be able to patent that product for themselves.) But the patent system isn't perfect. A greedy patent holder can just as easily stifle innovation by refusing to collaborate. Even then, there's an out: If it's in the public interest, the government can just violate a patent and risk getting sued. For example, after 9/11, anthrax scares prompted federal officials to call for unlicensed production of the treatment Cipro, which was patented by Bayer. (The company later agreed to license it cheaply.)
As viruses mutate, spreading from animals to humans to other humans, we'll always be fighting some deadly new disease. The WHO shouldn't set a precedent of investigating researchers who study microbes. Instead, it should be helping patent holders find the best scientists to collaborate with and advance their research.
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Popular Science. See more stories from the magazine here.
If virus-patenting companies follow Monsanto's examples from biotech patenting, they can make a pretty good profit by suing people that catch their patented virus for patent infringement.
The business climate has changed a lot since the 1920s. Many (if not most) patent-holding pharmaceutical companies have more of a concern for profit rather than the public well-being. If you need an example, just look at cancer treatment drugs. Cancer patients are stuck paying a median $10,000 per month for newer cancer drugs (many of which, when tested by independent labs, don't actually work). Pharmaceutical companies always pin it on the research of these drugs being expensive, but once you look at the bigger picture you see that the real motive is profit. Far more is spent on marketing the drugs than is ever spent on researching them; up to 19 times more, in some instances. Of course, these advertising costs are passed along to the consumer. One also has to keep in mind that, since drugs are fairly easily replicated once the initial research is done, anything made after the investment threshold is pretty much pure profit, which means companies that have been charging outrageous prices to those suffering with cancer for years have been making big bucks.
There's a reason pharmaceuticals are the 3rd most profitable industry in the world. The article is correct in that patents provide a financial incentive for innovation and discovery; the problem is that there's no incentives to help people.
MojoKong beat me to the punch, and I have to agree. Patents in this field are a two-edged sword. Patents for convenience of the public such as cell phones or computers do not affect the lives of people unless they choose to be affected. Patents which directly affect the very lives of people endangered for some reason should be public information for use by anyone. One remedy to provide incentive for scientists to continue research would be monetary 'prizes' of sort through the UN, which would then make the information public.
My 2 cents.
popular science, when the hell did you start getting paid by Monsanto? the entire scientific community has been against gene patenting from the start. those of the public that knew what it meant where against it wholesale. instead of talking about the good that gene patenting will do talk about what exactly is needed to get rid of gene patenting. open source educations and hobbyist science are the future. not corporate owned flu bugs.
to mars or bust!
Ya and when they come up with a cure for Brest cancer I bet you think there going to just give it away since we funded the research no there gunna patent that shit and make billions off it no wonder this world is so messed up
.............meanwhile people like me are stuck working 72-84 hours aweek to pay the $1400 out of pocket expense for a medication that costs $8000 a month because their wife has leukemia. Does Obama care? LOL no. Patents on things like this that last for years and years, then are renewed through evergreening are complete bull$shit.. These federal patent judges approve them for kickbacks, and gets people like me stuck paying $1400 a month until the patent expires. The very same patent was struck down in other countries because it hindered treatment, but here in 'Merica, guess what, YOU'RE SCREWED.
I cannot believe you actually posted this article. How does limiting access and information to a virus promote research on it?
That has got to be the stupidest thing ever.
You should not be allowed to patent anything natural that you did not create.
The patent in question with hurt research because now companies will have to pay and ask for permission to do such research. This payment will then be passed on to people who need the medicine to live. In what way is this good or helpful? They will get credit for their work regardless. Yes people should be paid for their work but not to the extent this will cause.
Poorly thought out and poorly explained.
I really expected more from you then to have some random person posting idiot rants with no proof to back up their rants.
Hate to break it to you but patents are the reason there is a leukemia drug for your wife in the first place. Nobody in their right mind is going to spend a billion dollars developing a drug so somebody else can rip off their formula and make a generic version. And these patents really don't last that long. Monsanto has popular seeds losing patent protection next year.
Science is about the truth, not about the profit. Allowing such things to be patented will extended the monopoly of very few groups who have enough funds who might even use the discovery to further their own political and social agenda. Is that means that developing countries will have to invest even more to do basic research because the virus is patented? Imagine Koch Brothers owning a patent for virus "x" when it is killing millions in developing countries, i.e. Kenya. One nightmare I have is the science community being full of business oriented people who join science only for the purpose of coming up with something worth patenting. Just look at our medical doctors.
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@ JRS ONE. They patent these things for years, decades, IN THIS COUNTRY, but elsewhere their evergreening doesn't work,they can't just change .01% of the formula and claim that NOW it works for another disease that it didn't work for before. Elsewhere they get the initial patent then after that its up and theres a generic that costs %95 cheaper, allowing more people access to the drug, but here in 'Merica where we have federal patent judges and congressmen in on the cut, they get it extended, and extended. Their patenting and subsequent evergreening allows them to continue to charge $8500 a MONTH for each of the 30000+ people in this country that take the medication (and an additional 6000 per year) to have access to something that will extend their life. And you're a fool if you think they spend billions developing medications, at those $8500 prices they make 10 times or more of their money back in a year, and the rest is pure profit. Want to know the real kicker? delta-12-protaglandin J3, something that is easily and very cheaply manufactured from fish oil, has in severa tests completely cured human leukemia in mice. Who has steped forward to fund this? No one. Theres no money in it. It will take someone like BIll Gates to fund it.