The two largest biotechnology industry associations breathed acollective sigh of relief Friday following President Bush'sdecision to steer the United States out of a treaty aimed atprotecting the diversity of the world's flora and fauna.
With Bush's decision on the biodiversity treaty beingnegotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, "I would hopethe thing would go away," Richard Godown, president of theIndustrial Biotechnology Association (IBA) said Friday.
However, with up to 100 nations ready to sign the treaty, U.S.companies are still likely to encounter aspects of the treaty asthey seek collaborations and product markets abroad. Evenmore important, as more nations sign the treaty as it wasnegotiated in Rio, it will become harder to modify its terms,William Small, executive director of the Association ofBiotechnology Companies (ABC), said Friday.
Both the IBA and ABC strongly protested provisions of theproposed treaty in letters to Bush last month. They asked thatspecific sections of the proposed treaty concerningbiotechnology and its products be stricken or that the U.S. notsign the treaty.
Most troubling to U.S. biotechnology interests were provisionsthat could restrict rights to intellectual property, includingpatent protection, and others seeking to promote the transferof technologies to host countries where a biological entity wasfound. Requiring that related technology be transferred on"most favorable terms" to host nations could add up a no-costtechnology transfer, Godown contends
For example, an early-evolved corn plant in South America hasrecently piqued the interest of some U.S. plant breeders as apossible source of genes for disease resistance that might beintroduced into modern-day corn, said the ABC's Small. The U.S.industry was concerned with what rights the corn's developermight be forced to cede under terms of the treaty.
"We've got to protect the right of intellectual property here andelsewhere or we won't find people or companies willing toinvest in these products," he said.
Concerns about the potential damage to the U.S. industryappeared to be the leading factors in the Bush administration'sdecision to opt out of the treaty. Still, there was evidence ofinternal disagreement within the administration. The New YorkTimes reported Friday that EPA Administrator William Riley,who is heading the U.S. delegation to the Rio summit, wanted tofollow a Brazilian suggestion for the United States to negotiateto weaken or strike the onerous provisions concerningbiotechnology from the proposed treaty. Riley's request wasrejected.
Most U.S. criticism was focused on just a few sections of thedraft treaty. For example, Article 17 would obligate signatorynations to facilitate the exchange of research data andtechnologies regarding biologic entities "taking into account thespecial needs of developing countries."
Both the ABC and IBA favor the existing process, wherecompanies negotiate to explore for potentially useful biologicswith overseas companies or nations. Such arrangements oftenprovide for one-time fees or an up-front royalty, Godown said."This treaty would tie the hands of the U.S. company."
Ironically, the treaty's broader objective of protecting lifeforms from extinction is an issue that has strong support withinthe U.S. biotechnology industry. "We were supportive at theoutset of the concept of a bio-diversity treaty," said the ABC'sSmall. "Conserving the world's limited number of species makesa lot of sense." Rare natural biologic entities have been thesource or inspiration for medical innovations, he said.
As for the treaty's future, the IBA's Godown expects to see a lotof backroom maneuvering on the part of many countries thatagreed to the treaty in Brazil, but won't be able to passenabling legislation at home to support the treaty's provisions.
Although the immediate threat to U.S. biotechnology haspassed, the ABC plans to keep an eye on the issue and stay incontact with the U.S. State Department, Small said.
-- Ray Potter Senior Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.