Photo: Courtesy of Carl Feldbaum
Financiers and biotechnology business leaders suspended their networking for a few minutes at the BIO 2002 annual convention in Toronto as Carl Feldbaum, chairman of the powerful US Biotechnology Industry Organization, urged them to cooperate with their competitors and assist the poor.
Feldbaum's 10-point Biotechnology Foreign Policy,1 introduced over a sumptuous lunch, would provide appropriate and affordable vaccines and drugs for developing countries and ensure the protection of intellectual property while promoting free trade. "Our goal must be to ensure the widest possible dissemination of biotechnology's benefits while respecting the diversity of the world's nations and peoples," Feldbaum said in his plenary address to the annual convention in June. The convention provided companies access to management assistance and financing. "For a model, I looked to President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which articulated his international goals after the carnage of World War I."
But it's still early to enroll in a League of Bio Nations, according to Feldbaum and other biotechnology experts. National trade associations such as BIO have only recently gathered in what they've dubbed the 'International Biotechnology Forum' for deliberations on global commerce and intellectual property protection. Consumer distrust for genetically modified (GM) organisms--which rankles some US agricultural biotech leaders--shows no sign of abatement in Europe. And few companies have rushed to supply new vaccines for diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis that ravage communities in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, but leave populations in rich countries unscathed.
"Is [the creation of Third World vaccines] really an appealing activity for private institutions?" inquires Issaksa Diallo, director of Advance Africa, a nonprofit organization that supplies contraception and gives training. "Will they be interested in really developing vaccines, as compared to the type products for which they can get high benefit?"
The benefits for some in the biotechnology industry have been under scrutiny over the last few months, with Securities and Exchange Commission investigations of ImClone Systems, based in New York City, and the Dublin-based Elan. A jury also recently ordered the pioneering biotech company Genentech of South San Francisco to pay the City of Hope National Medical Center $500 million dollars (US) in compensatory and punitive damages for failing to honor a 1976 licensing agreement.
Despite such setbacks, Feldbaum expresses hope that the biotechnology industry's unique workforce--derived from academia, and focused on aggressive scientific advancement--will find ways to benefit from expanding services to people from poor and less powerful nations. "A small constellation of biotech companies has CEOs from academia; many of them have public health backgrounds," he explains, adding that the US war on bioterrorism may also result in the creation of vaccines that could be beneficial to other countries. "When I added all that up, ... I saw the opportunity to lay out what I thought would be new priorities."
ORPHAN RICHES Feldbaum advocates using the US Orphan Drug Act of 1983,2 which provides funding for research into diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people, as a model for Third World drug development. At its launch, he said, companies had marketed less than 10 drugs and therapies for rare diseases. Today, more than 200 drugs and biological products have been commercialized. "I pledge that BIO will work with the US administration and Congress to create powerful incentives for companies to tackle diseases of the developing world," he said.
Biotechnology companies will be better positioned to create drugs for small Third World populations, adds Janet Lambert, president of the trade group BIOTECanada, because advances allow companies to develop drugs for unique communities, rather than for the mainstream populations that purchase blockbuster pharmaceuticals. "The products will virtually always be breakthrough, but they may not be blockbuster," Lambert says. "If we can do this for one population and its unique needs, we can do this for another population and its specific needs."
PREVENTING A TRADE WAR While Canadian biotechs labor to locate niche drugs and compete with the colossal US biotech industry, European environmentalists' campaigns to prevent sales of GM foods frustrates US industry leaders. Some are using the international Biosafety Protocol and labeling regulations as trade barriers against US products, Feldbaum warned. "We would hope that global regulatory systems, particularly those already guided by international treaties, not be hijacked in spasms of anti-Americanism," he said.
But a French scandal over HIV-tainted blood and later deaths from the human variant of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) have created food-wary European consumers, says Tony Van der haegen, minister councilor of the European Commission Delegation to the United States. "In my department in 1992, British scientists came to us and told us that BSE couldn't jump the species barrier," he relates. "Now more than 100 people have died from the human variant."
The December 2001 Eurobarometer, which polled 15,000 residents in 15 European countries, showed that 94.6% believe they have a right to choose whether to buy GM products. A recently published European Commission report says the foods present no dangers. Nevertheless, democratic member countries must respect their constituents' fears, Van der haegen says. "I wouldn't talk about hijacking international treaties," he says of Feldbaum's assertion. "Mr. Feldbaum knows this very well: Food in Europe is part of the culture. Sitting around a table with friends with a good glass of wine--and not iced tea--is part of life.... We are no Puritans."
Paula Park can be contacted at email@example.com.
1. C. Feldbaum, "Biotechnology's Foreign Policy," June 10, 2002, available online at: www.connectlive.com/events/bio-feldbaum-0602/
2. Public Law 414, 97th United States Congress, The Orphan Drug Act, 1983.