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TRENDSPOTTER: Genomic Sector Deserves Laissez Faire, Not Potential Patent Threats, in Light of Bioterror

In the war against bioterror, genomic companies are becoming more noticeable. Consider: Maxygen has received grants from DARPA for its MolecularBreeding technologies, which promise rapidly to deliver antigens for immunization. The technology also has been designed to generate new vaccines with a broad spectrum of activity against multiple strains of several different pathogens, and deliver aerosol-based preventative and therapeutic agents.  

Using its leadership in proteomics, meanwhile, Large Scale Biology is  currently developing protein biochips in collaboration with Biosite Diagnostics to develop a rapid and low-cost method of detecting disease-specific markers faster and with greater accuracy than ever before.  

Other genomics companies have had a hand in allowing health officials to use DNA-based technology to determine the nature of a biological attack in a few hours instead of days or weeks. 

But the US federal government’s recent controversial “deal” with the German pharma giant Bayer either to cut its price for the anti-anthrax drug Cipro or risk losing its patent may spill into other corners of the life science sector, namely genomics. The question then becomes: Will a similar shortsighted political agenda and the notion that government knows best stifle the best technologies and discourage private firms from creating technologically advanced biowarfare defenses?  

It is now known that the anthrax being sent through the mail in the eastern United States is weapons-grade material. Though the delivery system is crude, the scientific capability behind it is sophisticated and determined as well.  

This country—and as events progress perhaps other Western nations—will need a sustained program to establish an early-warning system and effective biomedical deterrents to ensure public safety and national security. 

As such, the private sector should be regarded as a strategic asset in the war against terrorism. And consequently, genomics companies now should be asking themselves the following questions:

What are the immediate and long-term biological threats to our nation?

—What is the current and future ability of private companies to respond to these threats?

—What do private companies need in the way of patent protection, government collaboration, and procurement policies to maximize the successful development of vaccines, antibiotics, and other countermeasures? 

A private sector response to these questions is critical in the face of the government’s deal with Bayer, which arose in response to a public-health emergency triggered by bioterrorism.  

Such reactive approaches by the government ignore more cooperative approaches that draw upon successful partnerships used in the past to develop, say, penicillin during World War II, and will likely undermine private sector participation in long-term counter-terrorism programs and discourage investment in medical progress. 

After all, why should companies and their backers invest tens of millions of dollars in a technology that may protect people from small pox but may eventually be threatened by patent-threatening “deals?”

But unfortunately, biotechnological weapons against bioterrorism are being treated as commodities and their manufacturers as profiteers. Meanwhile, traditional weapons against terrorists—remember the $200 billion fighter jet contract awarded last week to Lockheed Martin—continue to be regarded as essential to national defense and funded at levels that assure profitability.

Genomics companies that I spoke to are willing to be patriotic partners in the emerging war against bioterror. To be sure, genomic companies have not encountered government officials threatening to strip them of their patent protection and open up their IP to wholesale discounting. But why should they fear it? 

Who is to say that the government  will stop at Cipro? And what signal does that send to our enemies, whose philosophy places a higher value on instruments of death than ours places on technologies that protect life?

Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. You can e-mail him at  [email protected]

Trendspotter is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets will affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday.

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