Gene law angers Greens

May 15, 1998

THE CONTROVERSIAL European Biotechnology Patent Directive passed its last big hurdle on the way to becoming European law this week.

The directive, which has been partly rewritten after objections from scientists and Greens, has now been passed at second reading by the parliament.

It means the directive, which some claim allows a patent on life, could become law before the end of the United Kingdom's presidency of the union in June. Others, including British science minister John Battle, have argued that the directive is necessary to harmonise patent law across Europe and that it will protect business and research jobs.

The parliament's adoption has sparked fury among the European Greens and other groups. A similar directive failed to get approval in 1995. Magda Aelvoet, co-president of the Green group, accused MEPs of giving in to "massive lobbying of the biotech industry".

"It is a black hour for the European parliament," said Claudia Roth, also of the Greens, while the European Campaign on Biotechnology Patents said the directive would still allow patent rights on living organisms.

It said: "The EP has adopted a bad piece of legislation that is inconsistent in itself, runs counter the European Patent Convention, defies the Convention on Biodiversity and will probably end up in the European Court of Justice."

The directive states that the human body and the simple discovery of one of its elements, including the sequence or partial sequence of a gene, cannot constitute a patentable invention.

However, it clarifies that "an element isolated from the human body or otherwise produced by means of a technical process, including the sequence or partial sequence of a gene, may constitute a patentable invention, even if the structure of that element is identical to that of a natural element."

"It is the patenting of life," said Thomas Schweiger, ECOBP general secretary.

However, Gill Samuels, director of science policy at drug company Pfizer, welcomed the directive. "We are very pleased to see that it has gone through without any amendments," she said. "This is only a harmonisation of patent law across Europe and will help us develop new therapies."

She added that patents did not confer ownership and dismissed the notion that the directive involved patenting life. "A gene section is just a gene section, it is not life. It's clear in this law that people using the patented technology for pure research will not have to pay the licence fee," she said.

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