12 May 1998
After 10 years of intense debate, the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, today approved new European patent legislation for biotechnology. The controversial directive affirms the right to stake claims on transgenic plants and human gene sequences that could be used to develop drugs.
"I think it is an historic decision, and that European politicians have recognized the rising growth prospects in biotechnology," says Anthony Arke, secretary general of the Brussels-based trade association Europa Bio. But environmentalists and other opponents say the directive could squelch academic research.
National patent offices in most European countries already award patents on human gene sequences, but the laws surrounding transgenic plants have been fuzzier. Under the new directive, a patent will cover all plant varieties with a particular characteristic, such as herbivore resistance. Dan Leskien, a lawyer with Friends of the Earth, Europe, says this "clearly benefits the biotech industry" and royalties could discourage universities from doing research on new plant varieties.
The directive would bring European practice on biotechnological inventions in line with U.S. policy, which proponents argue should strengthen European industry. European Union member states are required to enact the directive as national legislation within 2 years.