'Microbes can be patented'

By Kirtiman Awasthi
Published: Monday 15 June 2009

Mashelkar report says modified organisms are intellectual property

THE expert group on patent law headed by R A Mashelkar has recommended that microbes like bacteria, fungi and virus should be patented if they have been modified. The committee has also said India cannot limit its patents to new chemical substances in pharmaceutical products. The recommendations were submitted to the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry in early April.

A similar report submitted by the committee in December 2008 had to be withdrawn following charges of plagiarism (see 'Cut-and-paste patent', Down To Earth, March 31, 2007). The committee had then sought time from the government to resubmit the report.

The expert committee was set up in April 2005 to look into two contentious issues following a parliamentary debate on Patents (Amendment) Bill, 2005.One, whether it is possible to exclude microbes from patent protection and if patents should be restricted to new chemical substances in the pharma sector; two, whether these would be in line with Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) backed by wto.

The expert group in its report has said new products, processes, uses and compositions using biological materials could be patented. The rationale, the report said, is that India is rich in biodiversity and protecting biotechnological inventions would help biotechnology research compete globally. "Not patenting microbes would be against the international trade regime. What's more, the amendment to the Patents Act clearly identify micro-organisms as patentable," Mashelkar said.

Experts are sceptical about the report and said strict guidelines would be needed to examine patent applications. Inventions should be considered for patent only if they fulfil the criteria of novelty, inventive steps and commercial utility, said the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises, a forum of leading Indian biotech companies. Suman Sahai, the convener of Gene Campaign, a non-profit working for farmers' rights and bio-resources, said patents should be issued conditional to the patent holder sharing the economic benefits with the community.

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