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News Briefs, part 1

NIH Abandons Effort To Patent DNA Fragments

The Washington Post

After more than a year and a half of legal maneuvering and scientific controversy, the National Institutes of Health decided yesterday to give up its effort to obtain patents on thousands of pieces of human DNA discovered by federal gene-hunters.

In so doing it effectively surrendered any profits that might have accrued from the discoveries.

The decision marks a major turning point in an acrimonious debate over the legal and ethical merits of patenting fragments of genetic material, no matter how valuable they may prove to be. Patent holders get exclusive rights to the use of their discovery for 17 years.

In a few cases so far, rights to newly discovered genes have translated into highly profitable diagnostic tests or medicines, such as the blood-clotting factor for hemophiliacs.

Opponents of such patents have argued that biomedical research would be stymied if such fundamental pieces of life were subject to monopoly ownership.

Surgeons' Group Endorses Government-Run Health Insurance

The Washington Post

The American College of Surgeons yesterday endorsed the concept of a government-run health insurance system similar to the one in Canada.

The single-payer approach is simpler, more workable administratively and appears to be the best health plan for preserving a patient's choice of doctors, the surgeons' chairman, David G. Murray, testified before the House Education and Labor Committee.

The unexpected endorsement of a government-financed plan by the 52,000-member surgeons' group came as the health care political debate became both more intense and Balkanized.

Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, attacked leading Democratic health proposals as denying Americans "true choice."

Dole sought to prevent bipartisan momentum from building for a possible compromise between President Clinton, whose 1,364-page bill promises universal health insurance financed largely by employer-paid premiums, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn, whose more modest plan shuns the employer payments.

Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking via satellite to a conference at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, said, "We aren't going to tinker at the edges and brush off our hands" to take credit for reforming the health care system. "The history (of reform) has been one of missed opportunities because special interest groups have been just too powerful to overcome. ... This time we will make history."

AT&T to Cut Up to 15,000 Positions

The Washington Post

AT&T, the nation's largest long-distance carrier, yesterday announced plans to eliminate 14,000 to 15,000 jobs over the next two years.

AT&T's plan, designed to save the company at least $900 million a year, is the latest example of the massive downsizing underway in the communications industry. Communications companies eliminated 44,314 jobs in January alone, compared with 50,000 jobs for all of 1993, according to the outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"We're in a very competitive business. It's going to get more competitive before long. What this does is gives us the opportunity to build a more cost-competitive base from which we can grow," said Alex J. Mandl, AT&T senior vice president.

An AT&T spokesman said the company will try to find other jobs for displaced employees, so it is unclear how many people will be laid off.

AT&T, which has 309,000 employees worldwide, including 256,000 in the United States, said job cuts will occur in the Communications Services Group, which provides long-distance services to business and consumers. About 8,000 management jobs will be eliminated, including some in the headquarters staff.