India: Protection from foreign pharmaceutical industry’s army of bio-pirates

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.

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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.

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