The Indian government has made a vast database of 200,000 traditional Indian remedies, plants and practices accessible to the European Patents Office, in a move that campaigners and officials hope will stem the tide of ‘biopiracy’, whereby Western pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies patent drugs derived from traditional medicine.
By opening up the database – which took 200 researchers eight years to compile, trawling through ancient Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha texts – India has effectively made its store of wisdom ‘public property’, which can now be accessed and used by anyone, but patented by no-one.
Officials behind the project, which is known as the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), now hope that by preventing pharmaceutical companies from using patents to extract high profits, a range of cheap drugs could be developed. Indian researchers are already collaborating with a US company to produce a cheap drug, extracted from traditional remedies, to tackle psoriasis. The new drug is expected to reduce the cost of treatment by more than 99 per cent.
The library will also eventually include the 1,500 asanas, or poses, used in yoga. Attempts have already been made in the US to patent asanas, a practice Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the TKDL, describes as ‘simply wrong’.
The database is a success not only in terms of its scope – it will also save India billions of rupees in lengthy court cases. Official estimates put the cost of the legal fees of overturning patents filed on medicines created from the turmeric root and the neem tree at in excess of $5 million. In Europe alone there have been at least 285 patents for medicines derived from plants used in traditional Indian healing routines.
Dr Patricia Loughlan of the University of Sydney told Australia’s ABC news service that she was
confident the scheme was watertight.
‘Yes, it will work,’ she said. ‘It is perfect. It is not in any way defying the patent system. That is what in a way is so clever about it… It is using what is in the patent system itself.’
PREVIOUS BIOPIRACY OF INDIAN KNOWLEDGE
TURMERIC the well-known culinary spice had been used for centuries to heal wounds and rashes, before two expatriate Indians at the University of Mississippi were granted a patent in 1955 on the use of the root in healing. It took 44 years for it to be overturned.
NEEM Extracts from the leaves of the neem tree have traditionally been used to repel pests and fungal diseases from crops, as well as for cold, flu and even malaria relief. In 1994, the European
patent office awarded chemicals company Wr grace a patent on neem oil as a crop anti-fungal agent. After a protracted appeal by Indian farmers and Ngos, the patent was overturned in 2006.
BASMATI RICE the US company ricetec was awarded a patent on a rice strain and breeding techniques in 1997 by the US patent office. Indian investigators realised that the strain was genetically extremely similar to basmati rice, and could have been used to challenge Indian
imports if enforced. In 2000, ricetec was forced to amend its patent.