India Moves to Protect Traditional Medicines

25 February 2009

The Indian government has effectively licensed 200,000 local treatments as ‘public property’, making the local remedies free for everyone to use, but not to be branded for sale.
 
This initiative follows the startling discovery by scientists in Delhi of the extent of “bio-prospecting” of natural remedies by foreign companies. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reports that an investigation of government records revealed that 5,000 patents had been issued, at a cost of at least US$ 150 million for “medical plants and traditional systems.” 
 
“More than 2,000 of these belong to the Indian systems of medicine,” claims Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. The discovery raised the question of why multinational companies are spending millions of dollars to patent treatments that they claimed were ineffective, Gupta said.
 
“The problem with traditional medicines is that, yes it is known about within, say, sometimes a very small community,” legal expert Patricia Loughlan explained in an interview with Australia’s ABC News.
 
“So big pharma can go into, say, India...and engage in what is sometimes called 'bio-prospecting' or 'bio-piracy',” she said.
 
“They get this traditional knowledge and they patent it themselves and then start making monopoly profits from this patent for something that in effect they didn't invent. They got the knowledge from someone who invented it say 500 years ago.”
 
In Brussels alone there have been 285 patents for medicinal plants well known in Indian medical systems, principally ayurveda, unani and siddha, the investigation revealed. Ayuyrveda is a traditional medical treatment. Unani is believed to have come to India from ancient Greece, whilst siddha is one of the oldest medical systems originating from the southern India. In this regard, Gupta is requesting that the Belgian government lift these patents, as they have already shown the authorities the medicinal uses of these systems were known in India.
 
Indian researchers have spent the last eight years meticulously translating ancient Indian texts and compiling the information into a database that details the 200,000 treatments. The resulting Traditional Knowledge Digital Library will now be used by the European Patent Office to check against ‘bio-prospectors’ -- parties interested in mining biological or genetic resources for scientific research or commercial development.
 
In the past India, has fought lengthy and costly legal battles to have patents revoked. Officials say that, in a legal battle that lasted almost 10 years, the Indian government spent in excess of US$ 5 million to have patents lifted from medicines created from turmeric and neem, an Indian tree. In this case, India succeeded “because [it] proved these were part of traditional Indian knowledge. There was no innovation and therefore no patent should be granted,” Gupta said.
 
Another major concern of the Indian government is the billion dollar industry of yoga, an ancient Indian practice that has recently gained a large following, particularly in the US. In India, though, yoga is considered a traditional medicine and as such the Indian government has asked the US to register yoga as a ’well-known mark’.
 
“We want no one to appropriate the yoga brand for themselves,” Gupta said. “There are 1,500 asanas [yogic poses] and exercises given in our ancient texts. We are transcribing these so they too cannot be appropriated by anyone. We have had instances where people have patented a yoga technique by describing a certain temperature. This is simply wrong.”
 
India presents an unusual case given its seven national medical systems, of which modern medicine is but one. According to newspaper reports, traditional medicine is used by approximately four-fifths of India’s population, and there are 430,000 ayurvedic medical practitioners registered by the Indian government. Ayush, the department responsible for India’s traditional medicine industry, has a budget of 10 billion rupees (US$ 260 million).
 
This initiative by the Indian government to combat bio-piracy stems from the belief that the developing world’s rich biodiversity could be the source of a vast array of new drugs and crops. Gupta argues that while it “costs the West US$ 15 billion and 15 years to produce a blockbuster drug…traditional medicine could herald a new age of cheap drugs,” particularly “if you can take a natural remedy and isolate the active ingredient then you just need to drug trials and marketing.”
 
Gupta is positive that the move toward developing cheap drugs that are based on traditional knowledge has already begun. Indian researches have begun collaborating with a US pharmaceutical company to make a drug that fights psoriasis, which will be tested in clinical trials this year. According to Gupta, if the drug is successful it will reduce the cost of treatment to US$ 50. “This is a lot less than the US$ 10,000 current medicine costs.”
 
Legal expert Loughlan is convinced that the Indian scheme will serve its intended purpose.
 
“Yes, it will work,” she said in the ABC interview. “It is not in any way defying the patent system...It is using what is in the patent system itself and that is what it is so clever and why it will work,” she said.
 
Traditional Knowledge at the WTO
 
The move to protect traditional medicines in India mirrors a push that New Delhi, supported by countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Kenya, the EU, Pakistan and Switzerland, has made at the WTO in recent years. Specifically, the countries have demanded that the protection of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge be integrated into the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS Agreement.
 
Support for such a move grew last summer, when more than one hundred WTO Members, including the EU, Brazil, China and several African countries, indicated their support for amending the TRIPS Agreement to include language ensuring the protection of traditional knowledge. Moreover, these countries insisted that a TRIPS amendment to check bio-piracy should be included in the overall Doha Round package at the WTO, instead of being relegated to the sidelines of global trade talks. .
 
But the TRIPS amendment proposal had its opponents as well. The US, Japan, Singapore, Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Argentina, among others, argued that more technical discussions and empirical evidence were needed before moving forward with negotiations on an amendment.
 
Ultimately, there was no progress in addressing this issue in view of the deadlock in world trade talks at the end of July last year.
 
ICTSD reporting; “India moves to protect traditional medicines from foreign patents,” THE GUARDIAN, 22 February 2009; “Indian government moves to protect its culture,” ABC (Australia), 23 February 2009. 

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