Beast of the Month - July 2000
Dr. J. Craig Venter, Celera Genomics President
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
On June 26, 2000, history was made: in a joint announcement, the publicly funded Human Genome Project and the private corporation Celera Genomics declared that they had both successfully mapped the human genetic code. The work is being trumpeted as the first great scientific discovery of the 21st century (yeah, we know, technically it doesn't start until 2001) and one of the most astounding discoveries of all time. This is no mere hype: the 21st century is already being called "The Biotech Century" by some, as the biotech industry promises to be the leading edge gold rush over the next 100 years.
Ever since the start of the publicly funded Human Genome Project in 1988, there has been a lot of underground suspicion of the project. The cynical belief was that for all the hype of using the discovery to save lives, the actual goal of the project was more efficient biological warfare to wipe out Third Worlders. Another concern (which often went hand in hand with the biowarfare concern) is the idea that genetic information would be used by eugenics groups for designer babies and other sinister goals. A more mainstream concern was the issue of privacy, that the information would be put in the hands of employers and insurance companies without consent and deny people coverage and benefits.
Twelve years and $2 billion later, another issue has become even more central to controversy over the mapping of the genetic code: the control of the genetic code by commercial interests for personal profit. Enter Dr. J. Craig Venter, President of Celera Genomics and The Konformist Beast of the Month.
In the early 1990s, Venter was a top researcher for the National Institute of Health, but left to form the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and later Celera, Latin for "quick." Quick indeed: he would soon use a technique known as "whole-genome shotgun cloning" to read the genetic code via supercomputers to analyze and combine broken up chunks of the code. The technique was dismissed by James Watson, Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the DNA structure, who declared his work wasn't science and "could be run by monkeys." Watson has since conceded he was wrong: Venter's plan has been a huge success, being much faster and ten times less expensive than the system used by the publicly funded version. The end result: what it took the Human Genome Project ten years to decipher, Venter and co. managed to achieve in less than a year and a fraction of the cost at $300 million.
A fraction of the cost, that is, to Celera. Venter, like any entrepreneur, is not doing this for altruistic reasons. Nor should he be expected to be. Still, how does Celera plan to make a profit? One part, a reasonable plan, is to make available to subscribers genetic information via its huge computer database. The more controversial part of the business plan is the patenting of genetic code information for Celera profit. Already, it has filed 6,500 "provisional patent applications" on its information. Celera is not alone: another firm, Human Genome Sciences (a former TIGR partner founded by former AIDS researcher William Haseltine), has applied for 7,500. As Don Pelto, a patent law expert from McKenna and Cuneo put it, "If they're the first company to discover a patentable gene sequence, then they hold the rights to those. The patent possibilities and the strength of their business go hand in hand."
No surprise here: when Venter was at the NIH, his discoveries were rushed to patent by his bosses, a move blasted by Watson (then head of the NIH's contribution to the HGP) as "sheer lunacy." This is what led to Venter leaving the NIH, which backed down from the patenting scheme, though Watson would resign from the project in protest nonetheless.
In November 1999, the HGP and Celera discussed collaboration of mapping the human genome. The discussions died when Celera demanded five-year exclusive rights to the data. As the HGP later stated in a letter, "While establishing a monopoly of commercial uses of the human genome sequence may be in Celera's business interests, it is not in the best interests of science or the general public." Art Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, adds: "It will be only a matter of time before it moves into private hands in terms of making drugs. The question is how much are they charging for it?"
To be fair to Venter and Celera, they've done an amazing job already in uncovering genetic code information, and no doubt their private research has kick-started the HGP to speed things up. Venter and Celera deserve credit and financial rewards for this, the question is what rewards and how they'll receive it.
The supposed right to patent genetic code is a dubious one, and one which is central to another big controversy of our time, the battle over genetically engineered foods (companies such as Monsanto are producing and promoting GE foods specifically because they control the rights to the alleged boons to mankind.) Watson remains completely opposed to the policy, which he finds a betrayal of science and unethical. Even Time Magazine, no enemy of korporate kontrol of information, stated in an article:
"The Patent Office has set the bar so low that you can get a patent with only a fragmentary description of a gene's structure and no idea at all of the gene's function. This ends up discouraging future research into how to use the genes to cure disease, which is a harder and much more important goal. Even more modest applications - eliminating the side effects of drugs, for example, by screening them against a complete set of human proteins - could be blocked by a sort of Balkanization of gene patents."
While others (unsurprisingly, mainly competitors) blast Venter for his Trump-esque megalomania which has earned him comparisons to Hitler - he is alleged to have used his own DNA for the samples Celera is analyzing, does science by press release, and lives a yacht and sports car jet-set lifestyle - it is this issue which Venter and Celera are point zero of the debate over. This goes to an even deeper question which pervades all scientific research that later earns commercial licenses: what right do companies have to patent information they've received courtesy of government subsidized research?
The issue is a controversial one, but don't expect it to be answered in the public interest. After all, though President Klinton (along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair) publicly criticized the practice of genome sequence patenting in mid-March, the fact remains that the Patent Office is under the control of the Executive Branch. The policy that Slick Willie supposedly slammed is his own, part of his predictable two-faced nature of pretending to be a "New Democrat" while enforcing reactionary policies which serve korporate agenda. If Gore or Bush enter the White House, no doubt such hypocrisy will continue. In the end, the policy will serve those with money and political connections, and Venter and Celera are well on their way to getting much more of both.
In any case, we salute Dr. J. Craig Venter as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Craig!!!
The Ownership of all Life, Jon Rappoport (1999, Truth Seeker Books)
The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, Jeremy Rifkin, 1999
"The Race Is Over," Frederic Golden and Michael D. Lemonick
Craig Venter: The Bad Boy of Genomics Makes Good
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