The Burden of Enforcing GINA: EEOC v. Nestle Illustrates One Challenge in Pursuing Genetic Discrimination Claims
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) is a federal law making it illegal for insurers and employers to acquire and to use genetic information in certain contexts. Specifically, Title II of GINA prohibits employers with more than 15 employees, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management training and apprenticeship program committees from using genetic information when making employment decisions (e.g. hiring, firing, promotions, placement, compensation, privileges, seniority, etc).
The employment discrimination provisions took effect on November 21, 2009, with an air of uncertainty, as the Final Rules implementing Title II of GINA were not issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) until a year later (See 75 Fed Reg 68912-68939 [pdf], issued November 9, 2010) and did not take effect until January 10, 2011. (See previous GLR coverage of GINA Title II here and of GINA generally here).
Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.