The British Government has quietly been awarding patents on living animals to private companies, despite international disquiet at classifying life forms as "inventions".
The patents involve ways of making sheep woollier and of increasing their growth rates.
The UK's unilateral policy came to light on the eve of a hearing by the European Patent Office into the "Harvard Oncomouse" - a laboratory animal which had been genetically engineered to develop cancer. Harvard, which claims that the mouse will be useful in research into cancer, wants exclusive rights to produce and market the animals.
Today in Munich, lawyers representing 17 opposition groups - including animal welfare campaigners and religious organisations - will argue that patenting live animals is contrary to the European Patent Convention. This international agreement (which is independent of the EU) excludes from patenting any invention whose exploitation would be contrary to morality. It also prohibits the patenting of plant or animal varieties.
Joyce D'Silva, director of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) said: "We already see farm animals - pigs and lambs - that have had growth- hormone genes added. The pigs are deformed and impotent and the lambs develop fatal diabetes."
Originally, CIWF believed that the Harvard Oncomouse was the first European attempt to patent a living animal. But it has now emerged that in September 1992, the British Patent Office awarded a patent to the National Research Development Corporation (then newly privatised as the British Technology Group) for the use of a type of virus to carry genes from cattle or other animals into sheep for "production of animals with enhanced growth rate". In January 1993, it awarded a patent to Luminis Pty, an Australian company based in Adelaide, for sheep genetically engineered to produce more wool. Both patents cover not only the process, but also the transgenic animals themselves, produced in this way.
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