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By Miles D. White : BIO| 25 Apr 2020
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Earlier this month, I co-chaired the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual meeting (BIO 2006), where some 20,000 leaders in business, government, academia and technology gathered to learn about a dizzying array of advances made possible by biotech investment.

Many of these innovations hold more than just commercial promise. Indeed, some may help solve the planet's most vexing problems: The bulk of the UN's "Millennium Development Goals" are at least partly within biotech's widening reach.

Nearly 800 million people in the developing world are chronically undernourished. Biotech crops may be part of the solution. Such crops withstand drought and cold and can tolerate the most rugged of agricultural environments. A third of the world's irrigated land, for instance, is unsuitable for farming due to high levels of salt. In response, biotechnology has developed a tomato plant that grows in water with salt concentrations 50 times greater than what conventional plants tolerate. Crops created in the lab also help farmers increase their yields and produce foods that deliver higher quality nutrition, critically important in third-world countries. (Golden rice, for instance, was developed to deliver a greater supply of vitamin A, as vitamin A deficiency can result in blindness.)

With energy resources finite and increasingly expensive, biotech continues to drive alternative and renewable energy source development. One innovation actually cleans up pollutants by helping plants resist pests without the use of pesticides. Through carbon sequestration and phyto-remediation, some plants also actively remove polluting agents or greenhouse gases from the air.

Biotech-driven science also holds promise in meeting three, related UN goals: combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; reducing child mortality; and improving maternal health. To be sure, obstacles remain -- economic, social, logistical and political -- but biotechnology can help us leap these hurdles through advanced diagnostics and therapeutics, as well as improved nutrition.

But innovation needs two things to flourish: The first is education, the cultivation of our intellectual assets. The second is respect for, and protection of, intellectual property rights.

Regarding the first need, there is little disagreement anywhere around the world about the paramount importance of education in our increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. Unfortunately, there is no such consensus on the question of intellectual property. Ironically, while education is rightly held in the highest esteem all over the world, one of its most important products -- intellectual property -- is being increasingly disregarded, disrespected and violated.

Last year, for example, the company I represent was engaged in highly publicized negotiations with the government of Brazil over the purchase of a widely used AIDS medicine that Abbott had discovered and developed. While it had originally threatened to break our patent and produce a generic version of our medicine locally in order to treat more patients, the Brazilian government later agreed to an arrangement that met both its needs and ours. But this agreement did not resolve the larger issues involved in the debate over intellectual property rights.

When intellectual property is not universally protected, it becomes far less valuable. That's because commercial enterprises, and their shareholders, become less inclined to invest in it. And when less capital flows into research and development, fewer life-saving drugs are created.

A recent paper by American Enterprise Institute scholars Roger Bate and Richard Tren point out that the number of pharmaceutical companies worldwide engaged in research on HIV/AIDS since 1997 is down by about 23 percent, and the number of new molecules in development for antiretroviral drugs is down by about 30 percent. The authors contend that concerns about broken patents and other intellectual property challenges go far in helping to explain this decline.

There are similar implications for another of our leading issues: feeding the world. According to a recent study by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research -- an alliance of countries, private foundations and multilateral organizations such as the UN and World Bank -- "Biotechnology provides a major opportunity to meet the nutritional needs of an expanding world population, but ... intellectual property rights are essential for stimulating research" in this area.

As BIO 2006 so vividly demonstrated, we're poised to begin solving some of the world's greatest challenges through innovations in biotechnology. Let's not let the promise of those innovations go unfulfilled because we failed properly to protect the fruits of research.

Miles D. White is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Abbott and co-chair of the BIO 2006 meeting in Chicago.

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