UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 5, 2009

INDIA FIGHTS PHARMAS STEALING NATURAL MEDICINE AND PATENTING IT

Randeep Ramesh Guardian, UK - In the first step by a developing country to stop multinational companies patenting traditional remedies from local plants and animals, the Indian government has effectively licensed 200,000 local treatments as "public property" free for anyone to use but no one to sell as a "brand".

The move comes after scientists in Delhi noticed an alarming trend - the "bio-prospecting" of natural remedies by companies abroad. After trawling through the records of the global trademark offices, officials found 5,000 patents had been issued - at a cost of at least $150m - for "medical plants and traditional systems".

"More than 2,000 of these belong to the Indian systems of medicine . . . We began to ask why multinational companies were spending millions of dollars to patent treatments that so many lobbies in Europe deny work at all," said Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, who heads the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, which lists in encyclopaedic detail the 200,000 treatments. . .

In the past India has had to go to court to get patents revoked. Officials say that to lift patents from medicines created from turmeric and neem, an Indian tree, it spent more than $5m. In the case of the neem patent, the legal battle took almost 10 years.

"We won because we proved these were part of traditional Indian knowledge. There was no innovation and therefore no patent should be granted," said Gupta.

Yoga, too, is considered a traditional medicine and one that is already a billion-dollar industry in the US. Gupta said the Indian government had already asked the US to register yoga as a "well-known" mark and raised concerns over the 130 yoga-related patents issued.

"We want no one to appropriate the yoga brand for themselves. 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."

India is also unusual in that it has seven national medical systems - of which modern medicine is but one. Almost four-fifths of India's billion people use traditional medicine and there are 430,000 ayurvedic medical practitioners registered by the government in the country. The department overseeing the traditional medical industry, known as Ayush, has a budget of $260m.

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