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A new study examines the portrayal of human gene patents in Chinese news media

Genomics4S Research Director co-authors a new publication that highlights the lack of critical discourse on the issue of human gene patenting in Chinese print media.

Creator: Olivier Le Moal | Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A new study published in the September issue of Asian Bioethics Review examines how Chinese newspapers have represented the gene patenting controversy and framed ethical issues arising from the patenting of human genes. Based on an in-depth analysis of news coverage, the study observed two key ethical concerns were emphasized by the press: 1) that it is morally wrong to patent and own human genes, and 2) that gene patents tend to create barriers to accessing diagnostic and healthcare services. The paper entitled “Framing Ethical Concerns and Attitudes towards Human Gene Patents in the Chinese Press” is the first systematic analysis of how Chinese media have portrayed this important issue and is co-authored by Dr. Li Du, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Macau and Genomics4S External Research Fellow, Ms. Sijie Lin, Researcher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Macau, and Dr. Kalina Kamenova, Founder and Research Director of the Canadian Institute for Genomics and Society (Genomics4S) in Toronto, Canada.

The authors emphasize that the issue of whether news media have contributed to a more critical discourse on human gene patents is important to consider in the context of the current instrumentalism of the Chinese IP regime, which is generally viewed as a vehicle for promoting the commercialization of genetic research and applications. Drawing on previous research on the gene patenting controversy and media coverage in

other countries, the study undertook a qualitative content analysis of news articles published between 2006 and 2017, which were collected through the Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) Core Newspaper Full-Text Database. The qualitative analysis focused on the portrayal of ethical concerns, perceptions of potential risks and benefits, and the press's overall attitude towards the human gene patents.

The major findings suggest that media coverage, in general, tended to favor human gene patenting (e.g., 57.8% of the articles showed positive attitudes). Only a small percentage were negative and highlighted potential risks of gene patenting such as the increased costs of test services and lowering the quality of healthcare due to genetic testing monopolies. It is observed, however, that media coverage between 2006 and 2010 was more positive compared to subsequent representations. Overall, there was a change of tone in the articles published after 2010, with a gradual shift towards neutral and potentially negative perceptions. This change in tone is due to global controversy over the gene patents of BRCA1/2 genes and the subsequent US Supreme Court's ruling in the Myriad case in 2013, which was highly publicized in the Chinese Press.

The paper observed that most news reports viewed gene patenting as an important driver for the proliferation of genetic testing industry in China, although they also discussed ethical concerns and the potential risks of gene patenting. Regarding the ethics of gene patenting, the study noted that many news reports argued that the discovery of a human gene should not be seen as an invention. They also highlighted that gene patents may hinder innovations. At the same time, some reports argued that patenting protects innovations and it can play a key role in the commercialization of biotechnology. Many newspaper articles also expressed concerns over the slow rate of patenting and commercialization of genetic technology.

Finally, the paper critically analyzed the role of media in the gene patenting controversy. Given the ethical concerns and risks highlighted above, the authors suggest there is a need for more balanced media reporting and substantive discussions on the issue. The authors emphasize the broader ethical and societal implications of the patent system and argue that the news media and science journalism can play a major role in advancing a critical debate on human gene patents. According to the authors, this will also help in greater public engagement with the IP regime. The study advocates for a top-down approach to encourage public participation in the policy-making process related to gene patenting. Unfortunately, the issue of public engagement with gene patents and biomedical innovation has not been discussed by the Chinese media.

Du, L., Lin, S. & Kamenova, K. Framing Ethical Concerns and Attitudes towards Human Gene Patents in the Chinese Press. Asian Bioethics Review 12, 307–323 (2020).

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