My idea of a better-ordered world is one in which medical discoveries would
be free of patents and there would be no profiteering from life or death. - Indira Ghandi
Decisions on how and where our genetic information will be used rest in the
hands of those hoping to profit from a mutation or two.
The 10 largest drug companies last year collected $179 billion, of which
$121 billion was in gross profit. And now, drug companies are lobbying to
wrest our DNA from the realm of private property into their own proprietary
The loss of hegemony over our DNA is perhaps the least visible and most
insidious new direction of the genetic revolution. In fact, the drug companies
and partnering biotechnology information companies would love nothing more
than for the public to continue to be caught up in discussions of cloning and
its implications while legislative clauses claiming genetic material as
private property get wiped from the books.
After all, personalized biotechnology-oriented drugs have a seductive ring
and seem tame in comparison to visions of reproductive cloning. And, while we
fidget with creating policies to rein in human reproductive cloning, drug
companies and insurance companies are hammering out legislation to protect
their interests - your DNA.
Who Will Really Profit?
The average voter has not heard of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and
Researchers of America (PhRMA). This association includes all of the major
drug manufacturers. It has one lobbyist for every two members of Congress.
Before we pass this industry off as insignificant, recall that pharmaceutical
profits have soared 36 percent in the past two years, making it the most
profitable industry in the United States.
This group ostensibly promotes the patenting and researching of DNA-based
drugs. But behind the scenes, it quietly champions the removal of the last
vestiges of legislation associating individual property rights with our DNA.
Making certain the biotech gold rush remains uncluttered with regulatory
complexities and potential pitfalls, PhRMA has been working overtime to assist
state lawmakers with language for new "genetic privacy" bills.
Take the case of a bill sitting before the Oregon Senate Judiciary
Committee headed by Republican Sen. John Minnis. SB114 is considered by PhRMA
and other research-based organizations as critical to protecting the future of
gene-based pharmaceutical commercialization. This bill imposes civil and
criminal penalties for violations of "genetic privacy," establishes research
procedures and creates a genetic privacy advisory committee.
As praiseworthy as these objectives might be, the Oregon bill would amend a
prior genetic privacy bill, effectively removing all of the areas which had
declared DNA and personal genetic material to be individual property.
Oregon is one of a handful of states with bills retaining the idea that
genetic information and DNA samples are the property of the individual.
When I spoke with Scott Manchester of Oregon's Office for Health Plan
Policy and Research, who had a key role in the development of the new bill, he
said the waiving of property rights was the consequence of a "concerned
Manchester specifically mentioned PhRMA as lobbying for the deletion of
property rights because it would make commercializing and exploiting
biotechnology-derived pharmaceutical products more difficult.
Robert Koler, a retired researcher from Oregon Health Sciences University,
has also been involved in supporting SB114. He confirmed that PhRMA has been
paying for the lobbying efforts to have the private property clause removed.
They see it not as an impediment to the research as much as an obstacle to the
commercialization of future blockbuster biotechnology-based drugs.
Koler mentioned that in the eyes of the drug companies, having a private
property clause on the Oregon books is akin to having a lien on your house.
Drug companies may actually have to share profits if valuable genetic material
is used as the basis for a pharmaceutical.
If bills like SB114 are successful, they may force us to make a Faustian
bargain. They may accelerate the commercialization of products from
bioengineering discoveries while requiring us to cede any claim to the roots
of our own individuality.
The very basis for our uniqueness and complexity will no longer belong to
us, but instead will become raw material which can be extracted and exploited
for corporate gain.
If we are going to begin to commercialize our living genetic material,
should not all parties be able to partake in the gold rush?
Britt Bailey works at the Center for Ethics and Toxics and co-authored "Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food" (Common Courage Press, 1998).