Agreement reached at UN on biopiracy treaty

AFP , Saturday 25 May 2024

More than 190 nations agreed on a new treaty to combat so-called biopiracy and regulate patents stemming from genetic resources such as medicinal plants, particularly ones whose uses owe a debt to traditional knowledge.



After lengthy negotiations, delegates approved to cheers and applause the "first WIPO Treaty to address the interface between intellectual property, genetic resources and traditional knowledge", the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization said in a statement.

The talks had been clouded by uncertainty, with one sticking point being sanctions for offenders, which pits developing countries against developed ones broadly speaking.

Genetic resources are increasingly used by companies in everything from cosmetics to seeds, medicines, biotechnology and food supplements.

They have enabled considerable progress in health, climate and food security, according to the United Nations.

After more than 20 years of discussions on the subject, WIPO's more than 190 member states began negotiating on May 13 at the UN innovation and patenting agency's Geneva headquarters on finalizing a treaty.

"It's a realistic text. It's a balanced text," a Western negotiator told AFP before the final agreement was reached.

The treaty text says patent applicants will be required to disclose where the genetic resources used in an invention came from, and the indigenous people who provided the associated traditional knowledge.

The goal is to combat biopiracy by ensuring that an invention is genuinely new, and that the countries and local communities concerned agree with the use of their genetic resources, such as plant species cultivated over time, and the traditional knowledge surrounding them

While natural genetic resources—such as those found in medicinal plants, agricultural crops and animal breeds—cannot be directly protected as intellectual property, inventions developed using them can be patented.

As it is currently not mandatory to publish the origin of innovations, many developing countries are concerned that patents are being granted that circumvent the rights of indigenous people.

Antony Scott Taubman set up WIPO's traditional knowledge division in 2001 but no longer works with the agency.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it's revolutionary," he said of the treaty.

"Conceptually what we're looking at here is a recognition that when I apply for a patent, it's not purely a technical step... it recognizes that I have liabilities," he told AFP.

Brazilian ambassador Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota, who has chaired the talks, hailed the new treaty early Friday as a "very carefully balanced outcome" of the talks.

"It constitutes the best possible compromise and a carefully calibrated solution, which seeks to bridge and to balance a variety of interests, some very passionately held and assiduously expressed and defended over the course of decades."

Impact on innovation

Sanctions had been the main stumbling block.

Some developing countries wanted a patent to be easily revoked if the holder has not provided the required information on knowledge and resources.

However, wealthy countries took a dim view of this option, fearing that heavy sanctions will only serve to hamper innovation.

"The difficulty is trying to promote a form of convergence between those who already have significant legislation and those who do not," the Western negotiator said of the sanctions.

More than 30 countries already have disclosure requirements in their national laws.

Most of these are emerging and developing economies, including China, Brazil, India and South Africa, but others are European states, such as France, Germany and Switzerland.

However, the procedures vary and are not always mandatory.

In the end, the treaty text says countries "shall provide an opportunity to rectify a failure to disclose the information required... before implementing sanctions".

However, that opportunity does not need to be extended in "cases where there has been fraudulent conduct or intent as prescribed by national law".

Developing countries have long been calling for greater transparency on the origin of genetic resources.

It took years of negotiations to reduce 5,000 pages of documentation on the subject down to the agreement

Short link: