The Times (London) 31 July 1999

India accuses US of stealing ancient cures


INDIA'S scientists and ecology experts are furious at the raiding of their
country's storehouse of ancient knowledge. In the latest incident, an
American firm has been granted a patent on a combination of three herbs
which Indians have long known to have anti-diabetic properties.

"It's outrageous", said Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, set up to protect
genetic resources and farmers' rights. "This amounts to theft, a violation
of our indigenous knowledge. The Americans are stealing from us with
impunity and dispossessing Indians of what is rightfully theirs. It's like
someone stealing Coca-Cola's formula and getting away with it."

The patent has been taken out by Cromak Research on a composition of
bitter gourd, eggplant and jamun, the fruit of the rose-apple tree, which
is abundant all over India at this time of year. The use of these
substances in the treatment of diabetes dates back many centuries in India
and is mentioned in several ancient texts on healing.

Although plants themselves cannot be patented, the American application
has been granted on edible compositions made from the herbs. Nevertheless,
the Indian Government is contesting it, buoyed by its success in having
revoked an American patent on turmeric two years ago. It was able to prove
the long-standing use of turmeric as an anti-inflammatory and
wound-healing agent.

There was less success when India tried to have blocked a patent on
basmati rice granted to an American company called Ricetec. The company
successfully argued that it was not patenting basmati rice per se but had
invented a new variety of basmati rice grain that would produce better
quality and higher yields.

Ecological groups such as Gene Campaign and Down to Earth, both based in
Delhi, contend that peoples have sovereign rights over their natural
wealth. Alerted to the increasingly rapacious interests of First World
conglomerates, the Third World is starting to fight back. While most
leading Western nations, including Britain, have ratified the 1992
Biodiversity Convention, which ascribes to states sovereign rights over
their biodiversity, the United States has refused to sign.

Other indigenous substances on which patents have been taken out include:
mustard seeds (used for bronchial and rheumatic complaints); Indian
gooseberry (coughs, asthma, jaundice and wounds); and neem (known for
pesticidal, dermatological, anti-bacterial and other properties).

Dozens of patents have been taken out on neem, probably the most
celebrated medicinal tree in India. Two years ago, in a groundbreaking
case, a patent on neem oil owned by the multinational W.R. Grace was
disallowed on the ground that the plant's anti-fungal property was "known
for centuries and commonly prepared in Indian rural areas".

The interest of the international pharmaceutical industry in indigenous
plants is twofold: developing new chemical products is extremely expensive
and the drugs, once on the market, are too often found to produce damaging
side-effects and allergies.

Dr Sahai said: "Theft of our knowledge has economic implications. A patent
granted on turmeric, for example, could eventually operate here,
preventing Indian companies from making wound-healing preparations from
it." Others say that it will be difficult to stop the plunder of
traditional medicines without new biodiversity legislation and a database
of medicinal herbs.


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