GENEVA: After talks which spanned over a period of over 20 years, the United Nations is adamant on finalising an international agreement, in order to combat so-called ‘biopiracy’ later this month. Their solution is to enhance transparency with regards to the patenting of ‘traditional knowledge’ surrounding genetic resources.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (a UN agency that deals with IP and innovation) is hopeful of ensuring that such knowledge will be protected from exploitation.

WIPO is comprised of 193 member states and will begin negotiations for an agreement from the 13 to 24 of May, at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. Below is a summation of the issues at stake, relevant fault lines and an explanation as to why exactly countries have waited till now, to move towards an agreement.

What is biopiracy?

Biopiracy is the use of genetic resources, and associated traditional knowledge, without any agreement on the part of those who hold them, and without the holders receiving any tangible benefit. Genetic resources are contained in a variety of organisms, such as medicinal plants, agricultural crops and animal breeds.

These resources are increasingly being utilised in everything ranging from cosmetics to seeds, medicines, biotechnology and food supplements. Given it is not obligatory to publish the origin of innovation, numerous developing countries are concerned that patents are being granted that either circumvent the rights of indigenous people or are issued for already existing inventions. Such cases often end up in prolonged legal battles.

“This is referred to colloquially as biopiracy” according to Wend Wendland, the director of WIPO’s traditional knowledge division. While natural genetic resources themselves cannot be directly protected as intellectual property (as they are not creations of the human mind), inventions developed using them can be, most often through a patent, says WIPO.

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

What does the draft agreement say?

Patent applicants will be required to disclose the country from which the genetic resources involved in the invention originated, as well as the indigenous people that provided the traditional knowledge.

The goal is to increase the “efficacy, transparency and quality” of the patent system, says the WIPO. This will ensure that the invention is indeed new and that the countries and communities concerned have consented to the fact. An excess of 30 countries have such disclosure requirements incorporated into their national legislation. The majority of these are developing countries, including China, Brazil, India and South Africa. However, there are European states, too, such as France, Germany and Switzerland. It is paramount to mention that these procedures may vary and nor are they always mandatory.

Transparency stands to boost the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, which stipulates persons providing genetic resources and/or traditional knowledge ‘should’ benefit from the advantages (financial or otherwise), arising from their use.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2024

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