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Patently False

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on December 20th, 2010


The email's subject line was meant to be a grabber: "Surprising results: Does the public support DNA patents?"

The link was to an article in the Biotechnology Industry Organization's December newsletter about a "new survey that points to the general public's support for patenting DNA-based products."

Public support for patents on genes? That did sound surprising. For several years I've been following the news and online chatter about the ongoing lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, which holds - and jealously guards - patents on the "breast cancer genes." The only support for human gene patents that I've run across has come from intellectual property lawyers and those who pay them. Everyone else seems to be against them - from the ACLU, which is representing the plaintiffs in the Myriad case; to the Department of Justice, which in October filed an amicus brief [PDF] supporting the lawsuit's core argument that genes are "products of nature" and therefore not patentable; to Forbes, where the headline greeting DOJ's move was "The Feds Come Out Against Gene Patents. It's About Time."

So who did the industry trade group dig up? Well, according to BIO's newsletter, the survey covered "400 elite voters," people who make over $75,000 a year, have college degrees, and "closely follow current events."

Why restrict the opinion study to the wealthy and well-educated? Perhaps BIO was hoping for a favorable response. But even the washed apparently have qualms about the gene patent giveaway of the past few decades. 51 percent of BIO's respondents expressed "reservations" about patents "on DNA-based products" (the industry trade group's term of art, which it recommends because it believes that the language everyone else uses - "gene patents" and "human gene patents" - are the culprits that "produce the negative reactions").

What does BIO make of the finding that even in its select sample, many appear less than fully enamored of patenting the human genome? With little room for creative maneuver, BIO trumpets that the cautious 51 percent could be persuaded to shelve their reservations. How? By telling them that gene patents "allow biotech companies to work on treatments and cures for often deadly diseases." Is BIO taking the temperature of opinion leaders here, or looking to spread pro-patent fever?

The brief BIO article goes on to summarize its conclusions from the opinion study. "First and foremost," it says, gene patent boosters should talk about "diseases that touch everyone…diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease."

In other words, spend lots of money on the message "no patents, no cures." BIO's president - former Pennsylvania Representative Jim Greenwood, who in his public servant days won BIO's 1998 "legislator of the year" award - likes to add another message: "no patents, no jobs."

The second conclusion: "The industry must reassure the public that biotech is not the enemy." Sounds like it's got its work cut out.

This entry is cross-posted at The American Interest. Thanks to Adam Garfinkle for suggesting it.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in Biotech & Pharma, Marcy Darnovsky's Blog Posts, Public Opinion, US Federal


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