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2 December 1997

European Ministers Back Biopatents

Europe moved a step closer to adopting continent-wide rules for the patenting of biotech inventions last week. The European Union's Council of Ministers backed a draft directive supported by the European Parliament that would allow patents on genes and genetically modified animals and plants, while banning techniques related to human germline manipulation or human cloning.

The decision marks the latest stage in an intense 9-year war between industry, which foresees economic and health advantages to a uniform biopatent policy, and a coalition of consumer, environmental, and religious groups, which object to many biotech patents on safety or ethical grounds. In last week's vote on a common position, only the Dutch government voted against, with Belgium and Italy abstaining. The Dutch warned of unpredictable dangers in transferring genes between species, while Ireland, Britain, and Belgium had some reservations about allowing patents on human gene sequences. "We are concerned that the directive makes patenting of gene sequences possible, but we hope the pragmatic approach against such patents by industry and academia will continue," says John Gillott of Britain's charitable organization, the Genetic Interest Group.

Britain, which has the largest biotech industry in Europe, argued that the overall directive would merely harmonize existing and varied patent laws in Europe, adding that without it, pharmaceutical industries might move elsewhere. And industry finds the new plan "broadly acceptable," says Magdelene Azero of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Associations.

The draft directive must now return to the European Parliament, which initially rejected it before giving substantial support to a revised version last summer. But critics have not given up. "It's not the end of the road, and we shall continue to lobby" against it, says Ian Taylor of Greenpeace.

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© 1997 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.