UN countries adopt treaty to better trace origins of genetic resources under global patent system

FILE - Andean farmers take part in a ceremony honoring Mother Earth and Father Snowy Mountain, in Pitumarca, Peru, April 4, 2018. U.N. member countries on Friday concluded a new treaty to help ensure that traditional knowledge about genetic resources like medicines derived from exotic plants in the Andes mountains is properly traced. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File) (Martin Mejia, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

GENEVA – U.N. member countries on Friday concluded a new treaty to ensure that genetic resources used in inventions, like new medicines derived from exotic plants in the Andes mountains, are properly traced.

It marks the first time the 193 member states of the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization have agreed that patent applicants must disclose the origin of genetic resources used and traditional knowledge linked to them – often from indigenous cultures that have long been exploited by colonists, traders and others.

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The treaty will, for example, require companies in industries like fashion, luxury goods and pharmaceuticals to specify the origin of the plant-based chemicals in medicines or skin creams that they use for their innovative products. About 30 countries already have similar rules on their national books.

The treaty doesn’t address the thornier issue of compensation to Indigenous communities for their historic — even ancient — expertise about things like tropical plants.

But the accord is seen as an important first international step. It requires patent applicants, like foreign entrepreneurs or international companies, to specify where they got ideas about what goes into their products.

Daren Tang, the organization’s director-general, hailed a “historic" achievement — the first WIPO treaty in over a decade — and said delegates at a final conference over the last two weeks “transcended the categories of North and South.”

“For the first time, systems of knowledge and wisdom that supported economies, societies and cultures for centuries are now inscribed into the global IP system," Tang told attendees. “For the first time, the connection between Indigenous peoples, local communities and their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge is recognized by the global IP community.”

The WIPO Intellectual Property, Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge Treaty, reached by consensus after more than two decades in the making, will take effect as international law after 15 countries adopt it.

The agreement centers on genetic resources like medicinal plants, crops from farms and some animal breeds. It will not be retroactive, meaning that it’s only applicable to future discoveries, not past ones.

WIPO’s rules don’t allow for intellectual property protection of natural or genetic resources themselves but do help to safeguard inventions — by people — that put those resources to work for humankind, whether historically or recently.

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