Patenting Traditional Medicines: A Growing Concern

Posted on January 8, 2010 in Health and Life

Avneesh Kumar:

Patent of the medicines is a tremendous problem in today’s context for the developing countries. The medicines which were used by the indigenous people from very old time are being patented by foreign MNCs. The ones who originated the medicines now have to buy them from the patent holder. There are two very big disadvantages of this, first is that the indigenous people are deprived of using the medicines freely and secondly it increases the cost of medicines tremendously. It is a very big threat to the people in developing countries.

The characteristics of a particular medicine, its effects, the proper method of using it, all these things are acquired by the experience. The foreign MNCs are depriving the people of these medicines, which are a regular part of their life. In a study, it was found that in the recent times 5,000 patents had been issued – at a cost of at least $150m – for “medical plants and traditional systems.” It was found that more than 2000 of these belong to the Indian System of medicine; as pointed out by Dr. Vinod Kumar Gupta, who heads the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, he also pointed out that in Brussels alone there are 285 patents for medical plants, which were used in three traditional Indian systems- ayurveda, which is India’s traditional medical treatment; unani, a system which is assumed to have come from the ancient Greece to India; and siddha, one of the India’s oldest health therapies from the south.

It was found that in Europe one company has patented an old Indian medicine, called Brahmi – Bacopa monnieri. Another patent was taken for another Indian traditional medicine aloe vera for its use as a mouth ulcer treatment.

Even India had to go to the court to save its traditional heritage from the trap of patent, more than five million dollars were spent to revoke the patents from turmeric and neem which are often used by the Indian families to fight a number of diseases. In the case which was filed against the patent of neem, the legal proceedings took almost 10 year.

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

It was reported by an American medical journal, ‘Virtual Mentor’ that there are 12 million people affected by HIV/AIDS living in the developing countries, who will die within a period of three years if affordable anti-retroviral medicines are not made available to them immediately. The availability of these essential medicines is very poor because of the patents by MNCs.

In Brazil and Thailand, AIDS programs are very successful, the reason behind it was that the key pharmaceuticals were not trapped by the patents, and they could be produced at the local level at a much lower cost. The motive of the MNCs is only to profit from these medicines; health of people is secondary. The MNCs are allegedly selling these medicines at prices 10 to 20 times more than the original prices. We can take the example of AIDS triple-combination therapy, the cost of this therapy in the industrialized countries is around 10000 US$ per patient per year, this theory was made available by Indian generics drug company, Cipla at the cost of less than 200 US$ per year. So, when a medicine is patented, it is possible that the poor people might not be able to afford the medicine.

Doha Ministerial Declaration, in November 2001, stated that- “…the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement, we affirm that the Agreement can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members’ right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all.” Concerns were also raised regarding the high price and the availability of medicines in developing countries. Although some flexibilities were provided in the Declaration as the right to grant compulsory licenses, right to determine extreme urgency or national emergency etc. Access to proper heath care is a very big challenge. Although, by the existing provisions of the TRIPS, granting of compulsory licenses is permitted (in the case of national emergency or extreme urgency) but the countries where the capacity of manufacturing is not good cannot avail this facility.

In India, four-fifth of the total population often take to traditional forms of medicine. It is in the favour of the nation to take up this issue in the international community and pursue it rigorously so that India is not isolated of its own discoveries.

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