In India, a team of doctors is reviewing ancient Indian medical texts and putting this information into a 30-million-page electronic encyclopedia of India’s traditional medical knowledge, the first of its kind. As practitioners of ayurveda, unani and siddha, ancient Indian medical systems that date back thousands of years, these doctors are trying to put an end to Biopiracy.

‘Biopiracy’ describes a process in which living resources or traditional knowledge and practices are patented, thus applying intellectual property restrictions to their use. The resources in question are predominantly from developing countries, and are the subject of patent applications by companies in developed countries. An important criticism in this context relates to foreigners obtaining patents based on biological materials, and the pharmacopeias and oral knowledge, such as that of the Indian Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. However, it is difficult to precisely define Biopiracy. One countries folk medicine is another countries recent find.

The project, called the “Traditional Knowledge Digital Library,” will put together an encyclopedia of the country’s traditional medicine in five languages in an effort to stop people from claiming them as their own and patenting them. The electronic encyclopedia, which will be made available next year, will contain information on the traditional medicines, including exhaustive references, photographs of the plants and scans from the original texts.

This is an especially difficult task in that the ayurvedic texts are in Sanskrit and Hindi, unani texts are in Arabic and Persian and siddha material is in Tamil language. Material from these texts is being translated into five international languages, using sophisticated software coding. Currently, there are nearly 150,000 recorded ayurvedic, unani and siddha medicines. Under normal circumstances, a patent application is rejected if there is prior existing knowledge about the product but this generally must be published in a journal or available on-line and not just an oral tradition.

When the USPTO granted a patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric, Indian scientists protested and fought to get the patent revoked. And, as we reported earlier, after patent was awarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the multinational company WR Grace & Co. in 1995 for the fungicidal properties of seeds extracted from the neem tree, native to India, the European Parliament’s Green Party, India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements fought to have it revoked on the grounds of biopiracy.

The basis of the challenge to the patent was that the fungicide qualities of the neem tree and its use had been known in India for over 2,000 years. The neem derivatives have also been used traditionally to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics, tooth cleaners and contraceptives. In 1995, WR Grace patented neem-based bio pesticides, including Neemix, for use on food crops. Neemix suppresses insect feeding behavior and growth in more than 200 species of insects. But the EPO agreed that the process for which the patent had been granted had actually been in use in India for many years.

While patents should not be granted on known materials, many developing countries want to deny patents for new uses of a known product or process, including second use of a medicine. The fear is this could stall research into new areas for these known starting materials. There is the view that the TRIPS Agreement is aiding the exploitation of biodiversity by privatizing biodiversity expressed in life forms and knowledge but patents are granted under national patent laws and have territorial application only. But, the TRIPS Agreement merely provides minimum standards of protection for intellectual property rights including patents, while WTO Members are free to grant a higher level of protection under their national laws.

Thus, India and other countries are free to deny patents on life forms, except on micro-organisms and micro-biological and non-biological processes, as per the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement. However, if the U.S. chooses to grant patents on plants or other life forms, other nations cannot object. Nevertheless, such patents will have force only in the U.S. and cannot be enforced elsewhere.

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