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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK
Patent laws cause diplomatic uproar
Rice farmer
There are fears in the region over rice exports
By Barnaby Mason

There has been uproar in India this week over a United States decision to grant a patent to an American company for varieties of rice similar to basmati.

And in Brazil, the government has announced it intends to break the patent on a vital Aids drug made by a Swiss pharmaceutical company.

The two cases illustrate different aspects of the argument about patents that pits developing countries against Western big business.

Biotechnology companies are rushing to patent the genes that determine the structure of living oganisms.

In some cases they are patenting something that was there all the time, breaching the old principle that only inventions - not discoveries - could be patented.

More than 200 patents have been taken out on rice, mainly by the handful of big transnationals developing genetically modified crops.

The successful mapping of the DNA of rice is expected to speed up the process.

Even where existing organisms are modified to produce something arguably new, anti-GM campaigners and developing countries say the companies are stealing biological resources and traditional knowledge.

In the case of basmati rice, the Indian Government has won a partial victory: it has persuaded the United States Patent Office to restrict the broad patent given in 1997 to the Texas firm RiceTec.

But the wider argument goes on: the World Trade Organisation has been reviewing its own rules on the subject - the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights known as Trips.

Many countries have refused to apply them so far.

Aids

The case of the patent on a key Aids drug that Brazil plans to override raises slightly different questions.

Most drugs to treat disease are indisputably inventions; they cost a lot of money to develop and the companies say patent protection must be maintained to give them a profit on their investment.

But the scourge of Aids has generated a campaign to force the pharmaceutical industry to sell a range of expensive drugs at low cost in poor countries.

Several Western companies have cut their prices. And in April the industry dropped a court action in South Africa designed to stop the government licensing cheaper, generic versions of patented drugs.

The European Union has informally suggested a wider international system of differential drug pricing for rich and poor countries; but the United States is sceptical.

Another more radical idea would establish a dual patent regime, to allow free competition among cheap-drug producers in the developing world.

See also:

23 Aug 01 | South Asia
Rice row unites India and Pakistan
23 Aug 01 | Business
Brazil to break Aids patent
02 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Lawyer moves to patent wheel
04 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai King applies for palm oil patent
19 Mar 01 | Americas
Cuba issues double trade challenge
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