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5. Put Public Health First

Ultimately, the most important thing is to remember the overriding public health mission of human genome research-public or private. While it is tempting to try to speed development with patent incentives to private firms and universities, the impulse must be balanced against longer-term concerns for how the ownership rights to genes will ultimately affect the equitable dissemination of health-related products.

The human genome is already raising vexing policy questions about our rights to confidentiality for our genetic health information and protection against genetic discrimination by insurance companies and in the workplace. Just like gene patenting, these kinds of emerging issues will require new solutions and proactive public policy. The time to start is now. As we begin the process of balancing commercial interests and public health, we need to be guided by our sense of fairness, by our democratic values and by established methods of transparency and reporting that will insure our ability to publicly regulate the situation in the future.

President Clinton’s joint announcement with Prime Minister Blair in March barely scraped the surface of the vital issue of ownership of the genome and unfortunately did little to stem the continuing uncertainty in the field. But, rhetorically at least, Clinton got it right when he called upon us to “ensure the profits of human genome research are measured not in dollars but in the betterment of human life.”

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