Genetic Information and Capitalism

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Genetic Information and Capitalism

Once upon a time there was a country where only monkeys lived. One day, a Mrs. Raccoon, who was very dexterous, moved into this country. Mrs. Raccoon used her skill to make flower shoes and gave them out to the monkeys. The flower shoes were not only pretty to look at, but also very comfortable - and free.

When the shoes were worn out, the monkeys turned to Mrs. Raccoon for new ones. And the monkeys were overjoyed with their new shoes. But this happiness did not last long. After a while, Mrs. Raccoon charged acorns in exchange for the shoes. At first the monkeys did not take this seriously. A handful of acorns was all that was needed to buy a pair of shoes. But afterwards, the price of shoes began to rise, from one handful of acorns to a half bushel, and again to a straw bag of acorns. The monkeys were so angry that they threw away their flower shoes. But since their feet were accustomed to the shoes, they immediately became bruised and hurt without the shoes.

Unmasking her true self, Mrs. Raccoon did not stop at charging acorns in exchange for shoes. She forced the monkeys to carry her on their backs, feed her and clothe her. The poor monkeys rued their incompetence in not being able to make the flower shoes themselves, and were slaves of Mrs. Raccoon until the end of their lives.

Why did I recall this fairy tale after the announcement that the mapping of human genetic code has been completed?

The international consortium including the United States and Great Britain, and Celera Genomics, a bioventure corporation, said the human genetic code map would be open to the public despite the funds spend on research. The countries that did not contribute one cent should be tearfully grateful at this act. But let's put it another way.

The map of human genetic codes is free of charge, but the functional genes are subject to licensing. For instance, Duke University, which has a patent for the Alzheimer gene, and Johns Hopkins University, which owns a colon cancer gene patent, receive payment for the usage of these genes. In spite of criticism, Celera announced that it would ask for payment for the usage of genetic information. It is estimated that the amount of money they will earn this year will be approximately $100 million.

Industrial nations are steadily registering patents related to genes for obesity, epilepsy, high blood pressure, asthma and various cancers. In 1999, about 1800 human gene patents had already been approved and 7,000 applications are in preparation. Experts predict that the registration of genetic patents will be an enormous market, estimated to be several trillion dollars. U.S. futurology professor John Naisbitt points out that the use of genetic materials is similar to the development history of computer techniques. In the beginning, computer technology was used for military purposes with government support, but after the technology was converted to private sector use, it became a fierce battlefield for creating profit. For biotechnology firms who want to achieve profits quickly, DNA is no longer a common property of humanity. Genes, under market principles, are only a commodity. There is a report that when the value of one kilogram of gold is 1, the value of a 256 megabit dynamic RAM memory chip is 14 and the value of interferon is 357. This implies that biotechnology creates tremendous added value, and is different from existing industries which require intensive capital and labor input.

Information on DNA and technologies for making use of it create enormous economic value. The Korean government announced that it will invest 323.8 billion won ($260 million) in biotechnology within this year, and designated 2001 as the first year for building Bio-Korea. It is deplorable, however, that the announcement is made belatedly and the government statement gives an impression that they are desperate as to find even a niche market.

by Ko Jong-kwan

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