Blogging from BIO 5 - Biotech’s Human Rights Responsibility

Human RIghtsWhen it comes to human rights, what responsibility does, or should, a bio company have? An entire session was devoted to trying to answer that question yesterday at BIO 2007. The question is already complicated but will only get more so in the future , agreed an expert panel consisting of companies, professors and associations. Human rights must really be considered as including many separate issues. According to George Annas, a professor at Boston University, working conditions, non-discrimination, and child labor are fairly easy for most companies to address. Far more difficult is the issue of"right to health" and determining essential needs for patients. In the bio industry, the controversial topics of cloning  and stem cell research are adding additional complexity. Jeffrey Elton of Novartis explained that right to health should really be addressed by the state and international community. Novartis, he said, feels that the company has a complementary responsibility but that the real work must be done through governments. As far as its own employees are concerned, Elton says Novartis has a  benchmark for a "living wage" at all its facilities that is established by an outside organization to sufficiently meet family needs in each given location. For questions of world health,  Novartis has established the Novartis Institute for Tropical Disease to work on Leporsy, Malaria and TB. According to Elton, Novartis spends a little over 2% of sales to fight these diseases. Finley Austin of Roche agreed with Elton that human rights is a societal issue and society is represented by governments. Roche tries to be responsible by not enforcing patents (e.g., for HIV drugs) in developing countries, by protecting the environment and by actually showing third world nations how to make the drugs and transfer the technology. Steven Holtzman of the small, startup bio company Infinity Pharmaceuticals saw things a little differently. He feels companies have a responsibility to make important drugs reasonably priced so all can benefit. As he pointed out, this was easy for him to say because none of his drugs have been approved yet. Simon Best of the Bioindustry Association (UK) says that it is important that even small companies not cut corners when developing drugs. "You can't do human experiments (clinical trials) on the cheap." He also doesn't want to see politics get in the way of scientific advances. He feels that this is what has happened to the European Court of Human Rights, where people don't try to fight their cases on legal grounds. But he doesn't want the UN - the guardian of human rights law -  to go down this path. He points out that in 2002, Bush made cloning a political issue with the UN. All the panelists agreed that basic human health is important, but exactly what constitutes this basic health is open for debate. Are sanitation, clean water and nutrition the most basic needs? Because you make money selling drugs, do you have a special obligation to the public that for example, a car manufacturer or oil producer doesn't?  Bill Swichtenberg
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  • <p>In the past, human rights inside the company is not really that seriously tackled. But they (the owners of these companies) realised there is more to the company than making money, they decided to add a little bit of humanity. They thought that if the workers are treated right, they will produce more and it means more production. - <a href="">Guy Riordan</a> </p>


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