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